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

Late-breaking mutations may play an important role in autism

July 17, 2017
A study of nearly 6,000 families, combining three genetic sequencing technologies, finds that mutations that occur after conception play an important role in autism. A team led by investigators at Boston Children's Hospital ...

Females with autism show greater difficulty with day-to-day tasks than male counterparts

July 14, 2017
Women and girls with autism may face greater challenges with real world planning, organization and other daily living skills, according to a study published in the journal Autism Research.

Researchers investigate possible link between carnitine deficiency and autism

July 13, 2017
Researchers are always looking for new clues to the causes of autism, with special emphasis on prevention or treatment. At Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Arthur Beaudet has been following clinical and genetic clues in patients ...

How children look at mom's face is influenced by genetic factors and altered in autism

July 12, 2017
New research has uncovered compelling evidence that genetics plays a major role in how children look at the world and whether they have a preference for gazing at people's eyes and faces or at objects.

Oxytocin improves social abilities in some kids with autism, study finds

July 10, 2017
Children with autism showed improved social behavior when treated with oxytocin, a hormone linked to social abilities, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Children with low ...

Possible early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder

June 29, 2017
Measuring a set of proteins in the blood may enable earlier diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a study from the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

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.