Why Is Eye Contact Different in Autism? New Yale Research Sheds Light

Eye Graphic Analysis Technology

Eye contact is an important aspect of social communication, but it can be difficult for individuals with autism to initiate and maintain. Many people with autism have difficulty interpreting social cues and may struggle to understand the meaning behind eye contact. They may also find it overwhelming or stressful to make eye contact, which can lead to avoidance of eye contact altogether.

Reduced eye contact with others is a common characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Although eye contact is an important aspect of social interactions, scientists have previously been unable to study the neurological basis of live social interaction with eye contact in ASD because it is difficult to image the brains of two people simultaneously.

However, researchers at Yale University have now developed a technology that allows them to image the brains of two individuals during live and natural conditions. Using this technology, they have identified specific brain areas in the dorsal parietal region that are associated with the social symptoms of ASD. This study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggests that these neural responses to live face and eye contact may provide a biological index that can be used in the clinical classification and assessment of autism.

“Our brains are hungry for information about other people, and we need to understand how these social mechanisms operate in the context of a real and interactive world in both typically developed individuals as well as individuals with ASD,” said Joy Hirsch, Elizabeth Mears, and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, Comparative Medicine, and of Neuroscience at Yale, and co-corresponding author of the study.

The Yale team, led by Hirsch and James McPartland, Harris Professor at the Yale Child Study Center, analyzed brain activity during brief social interactions between pairs of adults — each including a typical participant and one with ASD — using functional near-infrared spectroscopy, a non-invasive optical neuroimaging method. Both participants were fitted with caps with many sensors that emitted light into the brain and also recorded changes in light signals with information about brain activity during face gaze and eye-to-eye contact.

The investigators found that during eye contact, participants with ASD had significantly reduced activity in a brain region called the dorsal parietal cortex compared to those without ASD. Further, social features of ASD, as measured by ADOS (Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, 2nd Edition) scores, were associated with activity in this brain region. Neural activity in these regions was synchronous between typical participants during real eye-to-eye contact but not during gaze at a video face. This expected increase in neural coupling was not observed in ASD and is consistent with the differences in social interactions.

“We now not only have a better understanding of the neurobiology of autism and social differences but also of the underlying neural mechanisms that drive typical social connections,” Hirsch said.

Reference: “Neural correlates of eye contact and social function in autism spectrum disorder” by Joy Hirsch, Xian Zhang, J. Adam Noah, Swethasri Dravida, Adam Naples, Mark Tiede, Julie M. Wolf and James C. McPartland, 9 November 2022, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0265798

13 Comments on "Why Is Eye Contact Different in Autism? New Yale Research Sheds Light"

  1. “Our brains are hungry for information about other people”
    No, neurotypicals’ brains are. Mine isn’t so clearly I’m not one of “us”.
    Please try to remember that y’all are the majority, not “normal”.

  2. Not all cultures have as much emphasis on eye contact. In some countries eye contact is impolite or considered too intimate. I imagine that in Japan some people have less problems as most interactions are regimented and not spontaneous, showing emotion with facial expressions is considered uncouth.

    • A lot of interrelationship behavior has a cultural basis and so the old question around brain plasticity and environment gets raised again.

  3. The article doesn’t indicate the study can explain why autistic people “may also find it overwhelming or stressful to make eye contact”. Even for the mere lack of eye contact, the study only seems to show the correlation between it and the reduced activity level in the specific brain areas, but doesn’t seem to prove the causal effect.

  4. This is silly my child has is on the spectrum with social anxiety he makes eye contact with people he knows and trusts. Also there are many cultures where eye contact can be rude.

    • The claim was “reduced eye contact”, not “absence of eye contact”.

    • As someone with ASD, I can make eye contact because I have trained myself to do so, but I prefer not to during general conversation. I prefer the company of other autistics, because they don’t make me mask and look at them. We both just look forward or at our surroundings and chat. I LOVE car rides, because I am not expected to look at the speaker.

  5. My son has it to and he makes eye contact with people he knows or even people he doesn’t know

  6. Starting about age 2 my child would not make eye contact when talking to him. It wasn’t a cultural issue.

  7. I’m Autistic and learned to hold eye contact when required over the years but it used to be very distracting especially when I had to focus on a complex conversation and maintaining eye contact at the same time. I used to always say I can either pay attention or look you in the eyes pick one. I really don’t see what the big deal is though for NTs that’s is such a big requirement for them.

  8. My daughter just go’s on and on talking about allsorts and she is not on any medication just left to control her own mind and she sleeps all day and awake all night.

  9. I am an aspie and overcame eye contact avoidance over the course of 50 years. I am 60 now and my take on this is a combination of thoughts. Aspires do not like being the center of attention. Direct eye contact triggers the perception that one is exposed without any protection. This has its roots in the fight or flight responses. Diminished social interaction tips the scales in the flight side of the balance leaving the aspie in an uncomfortable state in a mix of flight, involuntarily exposed, anticipating all avenues of escape, and relief at the expected termination of the encounter. (My diagnosis was : Aspergers)

    We all survey surroundings from an observer point of view as we go about our lives and not much attention is felt from that perspective. However, when the view is suddenly in your face, up close and personal, direct eye contact, an aspie will hyper assess eye movements from the other to look for signs of judgement or condemnation; being put on the spot is challenging. How did I overcome this? Answer came from horses. Namely imprint training. I used the same technique on myself while overlaying the flight condition with the understanding that they don’t know how you feel any more than you know how they feel in their head. They just don’t know what you are going through so the opportunity to rep aren’t responses became an option I didn’t have before.

  10. Another interesting study that literally could have been a survey. Eye contact is distracting. You look when you greet and when you start a topic and when you are about to share sensitive information. Otherwise I am looking at my thought. Imagining the memory happening in real time, or seeing the words written out across the inside of my forehead, or seeing the clouds of emotion swirling and settling into the idea.

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