Study: Overstimulation, not indifference, makes eye contact hard for people with autism

June 28, 2017 by Rita Giordano, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Avoiding direct eye contact with others is one of the most common characteristics associated with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Many non-spectrum folks have traditionally assumed it is a sign of social or personal indifference.

Not so, says a new study published this month in the journal Scientific Reports.

According to the study, looking someone in the eye can result in unpleasant overstimulation of the brain for with autism.

"The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to lack of concern," said Nouchine Hadjikhani, a study author and a Harvard associate professor of radiology. "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."

In other words, when people with autism don't look others in the eye, it doesn't mean they don't care, said Hadjikhani.

"It's because it's too much for them," she said.

The results of the study may be useful for educators and others who work with people on the autism spectrum.

Hadjikhani and her fellow researchers with the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital focused on the brain's subcortical system, which is responsible for newborn babies' natural focus on faces and is instrumental in emotional perceptions. The system can be activated by eye contact.

Using the technology of imaging, the researchers measured differences in subcortical system activation in about two dozen people with autism and about the same number of neurotypical people as they viewed faces freely as well as focusing on the eye region. Brain overactivation was found in the subjects with autism when they had to concentrate on the . This was true with various facial expressions, but particularly fearful faces.

Overall, the findings suggest an imbalance between the neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain and those that tend to calm it, according to the researchers. In people with autism, the imbalance may favor the excitatory subcortical signaling involved in face perception. That, in turn, can result in an aversion to direct eye contact.

Hadjikhani, who has studied autism for nearly two decades, said the findings can offer guidance on more effectively engaging people on the autism spectrum.

"Forcing children with autism to look into someone's eyes in behavioral therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them," Hadjikhani said.

Instead, she said, slowly and gradually getting people with autism used to eye contact may help them overcome their adverse reaction and eventually learn to handle eye contact without distress.

Hadjikhani is now seeking funding for a study that will use magnetoencephalography, eye-tracking and other behavioral tests to further explore avoidance in .

Explore further: Researchers explore why those with autism avoid eye contact

Related Stories

Researchers explore why those with autism avoid eye contact

June 15, 2017
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 ...

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 ...

Autism Speaks issues special report

April 26, 2017
Autism Speaks today issued the first in a series of annual, in-depth reports on special topics in autism. Autism and Health: Advances in Understanding and Treating the Health Conditions that Frequently Accompany Autism gathers ...

Vitamin D supplements may benefit children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

November 21, 2016
Vitamin D supplementation improved symptoms of autism in a recent trial.

Autism biomarker seen as boon for new treatments

January 11, 2017
Researchers at the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment have identified a signature brain-wave pattern for children with autism spectrum disorder related to a genetic condition known as Dup15q syndrome. The research ...

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

Genes contribute to biological motion perception and its covariation with autistic traits

January 22, 2018
Humans can readily perceive and recognize the movements of a living creature, based solely on a few point-lights tracking the motion of the major joints. Such exquisite sensitivity to biological motion (BM) signals is essential ...

Nearly imperceptible fluctuations in movement correspond to autism diagnoses

January 17, 2018
A new study led by researchers at Indiana University and Rutgers University provides the strongest evidence yet that nearly imperceptible changes in how people move can be used to diagnose neurodevelopmental disorders, including ...

Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors

January 16, 2018
Scientists have long tried to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies have expanded the search for genetic links from identifying genes toward epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene expression ...

Being bilingual may help autistic children

January 16, 2018
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have a hard time switching gears from one task to another. But being bilingual may actually make it a bit easier for them to do so, according to a new study which was recently ...

No rise in autism in US in past three years: study

January 2, 2018
After more than a decade of steady increases in the rate of children diagnosed with autism in the United States, the rate has plateaued in the past three years, researchers said Tuesday.

Autism therapy: Brain stimulation restores social behavior in mice

December 13, 2017
Scientists are examining the feasibility of treating autistic children with neuromodulation after a new study showed social impairments can be corrected by brain stimulation.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Jun 29, 2017
That was something I had a great deal of trouble with as a kid ~ looking directly into other people's eyes was the most aggressive thing short of actual punching, so I didn't like it.

But to get an idea of what it is like for someone who doesn't like it, and I would not be at all surprised if it is the same for Autistic and Asperger's, have someone come right up to you, near enough to touch noses, to look with murderous eyes and yell at you as loud as they can. That is what it was like for me. Unpleasant...very unpleasant...

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.