Researchers explore why those with autism avoid eye contact

June 15, 2017, Massachusetts General Hospital
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find it difficult to look others in the eyes. This avoidance has typically been interpreted as a sign of social and personal indifference, but reports from people with autism suggests otherwise. Many say that looking others in the eye is uncomfortable or stressful for them - some will even say that "it burns" - all of which points to a neurological cause. Now, a team of investigators based at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital has shed light on the brain mechanisms involved in this behavior. They reported their findings in a Scientific Reports paper published online this month.

"The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with is not due to a lack of concern," says Nouchine Hadjikhani, MD, PhD, director of neurolimbic research in the Martinos Center and corresponding author of the new study. "Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain."

The key to this research lies in the brain's subcortical system, which is responsible for the natural orientation toward faces seen in newborns and is important later for emotion perception. The subcortical system can be specifically activated by eye contact, and previous work by Hadjikhani and colleagues revealed that, among those with autism, it was oversensitive to effects elicited by direct gaze and emotional expression. In the present study, she took that observation further, asking what happens when those with autism are compelled to look in the eyes of faces conveying different emotions.

Using imaging (fMRI), Hadjikhani and colleagues measured differences in activation within the face-processing components of the subcortical system in people with autism and in control participants as they viewed faces either freely or when constrained to viewing the eye-region. While activation of these structures was similar for both groups exhibited during free viewing, overactivation was observed in participants with autism when concentrating on the eye-region. This was especially true with fearful faces, though similar effects were observed when viewing happy, angry and neutral faces.

The findings of the study support the hypothesis of an imbalance between the brain's excitatory and inhibitory signaling networks in autism - excitatory refers to neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain, while inhibitory refers to those that calm it and provide equilibrium. Such an imbalance, likely the result of diverse genetic and environmental causes, can strengthen excitatory signaling in the subcortical circuitry involved in face perception. This in turn can result in an abnormal reaction to eye contact, an aversion to direct gaze and consequently abnormal development of the social brain.

In revealing the underlying reasons for eye-avoidance, the study also suggests more effective ways of engaging individuals with autism. "The findings indicate that forcing children with autism to look into someone's eyes in behavioral therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them," says Hadjikhani, an associate professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School. "An approach involving slow habituation to eye contact may help them overcome this overreaction and be able to handle eye contact in the long run, thereby avoiding the cascading effects that this eye-avoidance has on the development of the ."

The researchers are already planning to follow up the research. Hadjikhani is now seeking funding for a study that will use magnetoencephalography (MEG) together with eye-tracking and other behavioral tests to probe more deeply the relationship between the subcortical system and avoidance in autism.

Explore further: New method for the diagnosis of autism found

More information: Nouchine Hadjikhani et al, Look me in the eyes: constraining gaze in the eye-region provokes abnormally high subcortical activation in autism, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-03378-5

Related Stories

New method for the diagnosis of autism found

March 21, 2017
Auditory hypersensitivity is a major complication in autism. Researchers at Mie University in Japan have demonstrated, using a rat autism model, that morphological abnormality of the auditory pathway is involved in this impairment. ...

Toddlers with autism don't avoid eye contact, but do miss its significance

November 18, 2016
A new study conducted by researchers at Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and Emory University School of Medicine helps put to rest a longstanding controversy and question about children with autism ...

Processing facial emotions in persons with autism spectrum disorder

November 30, 2015
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty recognizing and interpreting how facial expressions convey various emotions - from joy to puzzlement, sadness to anger. This can make it difficult for ...

Autism affects different parts of the brain in women and men

August 8, 2013
Autism affects different parts of the brain in females with autism than males with autism, a new study reveals. The research is published today in the journal Brain as an open-access article.

Recommended for you

Autism linked to egg cells' difficulty creating large proteins

August 16, 2018
New work from Carnegie's Ethan Greenblatt and Allan Spradling reveals that the genetic factors underlying fragile X syndrome, and potentially other autism-related disorders, stem from defects in the cell's ability to create ...

Discovery of a key protein involved in the development of autism

August 16, 2018
Most individuals with autism spectrum disorder cannot be distinguished by physical traits or by severe neurological symptoms. In fact, these cases can be identified only on the basis of certain behaviours, namely their obsessive ...

People with autism may not have trouble focusing on people in photos

August 16, 2018
While people with autism may avoid eye contact in one-on-one conversations, they may not avoid looking at people in photos, according to Penn State researchers.

Mizzou program significantly reduces delay in autism diagnosis

August 15, 2018
When Katie New first suspected her son had autism, she had to wait 18 months for a diagnosis. She also had to travel nearly 100 miles from her hometown of Poplar Bluff, Missouri, to see an autism specialist in Cape Girardeau. ...

Ouija board study highlights ineffective treatment for autism

August 7, 2018
A new study into Ouija board practices revealed how the planchette (or a glass, as is often used) seemingly moves without any of the individual players being aware that they are doing it.

Google Glass helps kids with autism read facial expressions, study finds

August 2, 2018
Children with autism were able to improve their social skills by using a smartphone app paired with Google Glass to help them understand the emotions conveyed in people's facial expressions, according to a pilot study by ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.