Don't look now - I'm trying to think

Children with autism look away from faces when thinking, especially about challenging material, according to new research from Northumbria University.

Although generally encouraged to maintain as a means of enhancing their social skills, researchers found follow the same patterns as other when processing complex information or difficult tasks. Typically developing children and adults look away when asked difficult questions and aversion has been proven in the past to improve the accuracy of responses.

Prof Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Life Sciences at Northumbria University, will present her findings on 15 March as part of Newcastle ScienceFest, a week-long programme of events being held in the city to celebrate scientific endeavour and discovery. The findings will also be reported in next month’s Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

In the first study of its kind, researchers asked 20 children with autism – characterised by reduced sociability - and 18 with William’s Syndrome – associated with hypersociability - to carry out mental arithmetic tests. Both groups engaged in gaze aversion while thinking and increased their gaze aversion as question difficulty increased.

Prof Doherty-Sneddon said: “Previous research found that children and tend to avert their gaze when thinking something through and this principle can now be applied to children with autism too.

“Although social skills training is important in encouraging eye contact with children with , this research demonstrates that gaze aversion, at a certain point within an interaction, is functional in helping them to concentrate on difficult tasks.”

When trying to retrieve information from memory or work out complex problem-solving, looking at someone’s face can actually interfere with the processing of task relevant information. This is, in part, because are such rich sources of information that capture our attention.

She added: “This research will have a major impact in terms of the way teachers interact with these children. When teachers or parents ask a child a difficult question and they look away, our advice would be to wait to allow them to process the information and focus on finding a suitable response.”

More information: Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 53:4 (2012), pp 420–430.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A frown or a smile? Children with autism can't discern

May 05, 2007

When we have a conversation with someone, we not only hear what they say, we see what they say. Eyes can smolder or twinkle. Gazes can be direct or shifty. “Reading” these facial expressions gives context and meaning ...

Facing the facts of autism

Feb 17, 2012

Recognising a person’s face can be challenging at the best of times, yet the task becomes all the more onerous for those with autism.

Earlier autism diagnosis could mean earlier interventions

Oct 13, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Autism is normally diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3. But new research is finding symptoms of autism spectrum disorders in babies as young as 12 months. If children could be diagnosed earlier, it might ...

Augmented play helps autism

Feb 23, 2012

Playing with interactive toys could help children with autism to improve their social interaction with other children, say University of Sussex psychologists.

Recommended for you

Planning a better future for people with autism

Aug 27, 2014

In the world of special education, transition is the move from school to adult life. For most of us that move can be awkward, but for people with disabilities—particularly autism—it is especially complex.

Are three brain imaging techniques better than one?

Aug 22, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—Many recent imaging studies have shown that in children with autism, different parts of the brain do not connect with each other in typical ways. Initially, most researchers thought that ...

Adults with autism at higher risk of sexual victimization

Aug 14, 2014

Adults with autism are at a higher risk of sexual victimization than adults without, due to lack of sex education, but with improved interventions that focus on sexual knowledge and skill building, the risk could be reduced, ...

Autism rates steady for two decades

Aug 14, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A University of Queensland study has found no evidence of an increase in autism in the past 20 years, countering reports that the rates of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are on the rise.

User comments