Autism & Eye Contact


Internet Resources

There are many distracting visual elements people are exposed to everyday while trying to process information, gaze aversion (closing eyes or looking away) helps to minimize those distractions by closing out unnecessary environmental stimuli.
Informe Design
Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1977, no. 10, pp. 489-499 (1977)
R.M. Foxx
Attentional behaviors play a role in enabling young infants to modulate high levels of arousal. One index of attentional control, gaze aversion, has been studied across a number of contexts involving infants' negative arousal. Although few studies have focused on this regulatory strategy as a response to positive arousal, findings suggest that in situations involving heightened positive reactivity, the frequency and duration of gaze aversion is positively related to high intensity smiling, perhaps enabling infants to manage arousal levels such that they remain at a pleasurable level.
Laudan B. Jahromi, Cynthia A. Stifter
K. Kampe et al
This issue with the inability to properly process partiality also explained why the autistic child always seemed to be 'looking through you' rather than 'at you'.
From the United States to Africa to the South Pacific, a dominant cross-cultural norm exists - people believe that liars avert their gaze. "This is the most prevalent stereotype about deception in the world," Bond said. Yet gaze aversion, like other commonly held beliefs about liars, is not correlated with lying at all, other studies have shown. Psychologists have done experiments in an attempt to describe differences between the behavior of liars and of people telling the truth, and the results are clear: There is no telltale signal for fibbing. Liars do not shift around or touch their noses or clear their throats any more than truth tellers do.
Texas Christian University
From the United States to Africa to the South Pacific, a dominant cross-cultural norm exists - people believe that liars avert their gaze. "This is the most prevalent stereotype about deception in the world," Bond said. Yet gaze aversion, like other commonly held beliefs about liars, is not correlated with lying at all, other studies have shown. Psychologists have done experiments in an attempt to describe differences between the behavior of liars and of people telling the truth, and the results are clear: There is no telltale signal for fibbing. Liars do not shift around or touch their noses or clear their throats any more than truth tellers do.
TCU Office of Communications
The significance of looking someone in the eye varies from one culture to another. In Britain, meeting a person's gaze is usually considered polite and a sign of respect. Children who look away when asked a question by a teacher are therefore often reprimanded for dreaminess and lack of concentration. Research at the University of Stirling suggests that this not fair. A study of five- and eight-year-olds found that children who look away at a certain point in an interaction are thinking, not dreaming. The findings suggest that children's use of gaze changes with age. Five year olds tend to hold the gaze of a teacher more, whilst older children look away when responding to more difficult questions in order to 'switch off' potential distractions.
Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon
The significance of looking someone in the eye varies from one culture to another. In Britain, meeting a person's gaze is usually considered polite and a sign of respect. Children who look away when asked a question by a teacher are therefore often reprimanded for dreaminess and lack of concentration. Research at the University of Stirling suggests that this not fair. A study of five- and eight-year-olds found that children who look away at a certain point in an interaction are thinking, not dreaming. The findings suggest that children's use of gaze changes with age. Five year olds tend to hold the gaze of a teacher more, whilst older children look away when responding to more difficult questions in order to 'switch off' potential distractions.
Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon
The ability to understand other peoples visual attention - where they are looking - is a crucial social skill. Existing research gives the impression that this skill develops in the first two years, but the evidence does not warrant this conclusion. We have surprising new evidence that children cannot judge what someone is looking at until the age of three years. If confirmed, this would have considerable implications for theories of social development. In this project we aim to establish the following: 1. When children can judge what someone else is looking at. We will examine 2-, 3-, and 4-year olds judgements of what real people and people in photographs are looking at. 2. Whether 4-, 8-, and 12-month-old infants can distinguish between someone looking at or away from an object. This will help establish the origins of gaze understanding. 3. Whether 2-year-olds, who cannot make explicit gaze judgements, nevertheless have implicit understanding of gaze. We will test whether childrens preferences for objects are affected by someone smiling at or scowling at one of two objects, when the only way of linking the facial expression with one of the objects is through gaze direction.
M.J. Doherty
Children who gaze out of the window rather than look at the teacher could turn out to be the best classroom performers. Scientists have discovered that children who practise what they term 'gaze aversion' are often not inattentive but focusing their mind on the question at hand. In tests, 72% of five-year-olds who turned away answered questions correctly, compared with 52% of those who continued to look at the teacher. The harder the questions the more likely the 'daydreaming' pupils were to get it right.
literacytrust.org.uk
...gaze aversion, like other commonly held stereotypes about liars, isn't correlated with lying at all... Some suspects looked away more while lying than while telling the truth, and others increased their degree of eye contact, for example
Carrie Lock, Science News Online
Taken together, the results from both studies suggest that children with autism are relatively insensitive to a speaker's gaze direction as an index of the speaker's intention to refer.
Simon Baron-Cohen, Baldwin, Crowson
There are plenty of straightforward tricks for identifying a liar. Gaze aversion is nonsense; look for someone who blinks less frequently than normal. Also look for someone who pauses longer while speaking and is involved in politics, acting, banking, the law, or other employment. Suspect those who drink water. Someone who's tall is probably fibbing, as is someone short.
Times Online
Gaze avoidance only partially explains the 'unusual quality of the gaze' that is often conveyed by autistic children. The difficulty lies in the description of what activates an unusual feeling in others. For autistic children,
Michael Coster Heller
First, eye contact is not something, that is natural or even desirable to us. We have a problem with the interpretation of this language.
Jean-Paul Bovee
Goal: Eye contact. Increasing eye contact through non-verbal praise.
Jennifer Crawford
The results show that, from birth, human infants prefer to look at faces that engage them in mutual gaze and that, from an early age, healthy babies show enhanced neural processing of direct gaze.
Teresa Farroni et al
Tracking the correlation between eye movements and brain activity, Kim Dalton, PhD, and colleagues found that the amygdala shows activation to an abnormal extent in children with autism when they are directly gazing at a nonthreatening face. The researchers also reported that because autistic children avert eye contact, the brain's fusiform region, which is critical for face perception, is less active than it would be during a normally developing child's stare.
Neuropsychiatry Review
Although atypical eye gaze is commonly observed in autism, little is known about underlying oculomotor abnormalities. Our review of visual search and oculomotor systems in the healthy brain suggests that relevant networks may be partially impaired in autism, given regional abnormalities known from neuroimaging. However, direct oculomotor evidence for autism remains limited. This gap is critical since oculomotor abnormalities might play a causal role in functions known to be impaired in autism, such as imitation and joint attention. We integrate our oculomotor review into a developmental approach to language impairment related to nonverbal prerequisites. Oculomotor abnormalities may play a role as a sensorimotor defect at the root of impairments in later developing functional systems, ultimately resulting in sociocommunicative deficits.
LA Brenner et al
The present results support the prediction that face re-cognition is enhanced when targets display direct rather than deviated gaze.
Bruce Hood et al
Current research indicates that human gaze direction is a special cue for shifting attention for one of two reasons: (1) it reflects social desires and intentions and (2) its basic perceptual features usually correspond to important events in the environment. This study, conducted with individuals with autism and with age- and IQ-matched typically developing individuals, dissociates these two often-confounded explanations and demonstrates that eyes appear to be special for typically developing individuals because of their social power, whereas gaze effects are mediated by feature correspondence among persons with autism.
Jelena Ristic, Laurent Mottron, et al
One intriguing possibility is that eye gaze stimuli adversely stimulate the autonomic nervous system in autism, thereby inhibiting the normal development of a theory of mind.
Brian Keeley
The ability to learn about the world through another individual's gaze appears to have a dedicated neural basis, and in humans is compromised by a number of psychopathological syndromes, such as autism and schizophrenia and by specific brain lesions.
N.J. Emery
S. Lutchmaya, Simon Baron-Cohen, Raggett
Observing averted gaze results in a reflexive shift of attention to the gazed-at location. In two experiments, participants scoring high and low on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient questionnaire (AQ; Baron-Cohen, Wheelwright, Skinner, Martin, & Clubley, 2001) observed arrow and gaze cues to investigate cueing effect magnitude as a function of the context in which peripheral targets could appear. While identical cueing effects were found with gaze and arrow cues, the more striking results concerned target stimuli. In Experiment 1, targets could appear on a peripheral face, or on scrambled face parts. Overall, greater cueing effects were found when the target appeared on a face. However, this face bias was only observed in participants with low AQ scores, whereas high AQ scorers oriented more to scrambled features. Experiment 2 found equal cueing to targets appearing on tools, as compared with tool parts. However, individual differences were again observed, where low AQ scorers showed larger cueing towards tools, while high scorers oriented more to scrambled parts, as in Experiment 1. These results support the idea that low AQ individuals orient strongly to objects attended by others. However, since the same results were found for arrow cues, this effect may generalize to all central cues to attention. High AQ scorers possessing many more autistic-like traits tended to orient more to scrambled shapes, perhaps reflecting a bias for orienting to local details.
A.P. Bayliss et al
Face-to-face contact can sometimes interfere with children's ability to complete thinking tasks and this may be why they sometimes look away when being questioned by adults.
Science Show
When people are engaged in difficult cognitive activity (e.g., retrieving information from memory, on-line processing, speech planning), they typically look away from the object upon which their attention had previously been focused (be it a face, book, VCR monitor, etc.). This act of 'gaze aversion' (GA) can involve a change in one's head and eye orientation, a change in one's eye orientation only, or a covering of the eyes. Adults appear sophisticated in their use of this strategy, and will spontaneously and reliably avert their gaze away from potentially distracting stimuli during cognitive activity. Further, the amount of time spent engaged in GA has been shown to increase as task difficulty increases. So, this act of GA promises to offer an overt cue of cognitive difficulty. More importantly, Glenberg et al. report that, under certain task conditions, when adults engage in GA during the thinking stage of a question-answer interaction their accuracy increases. So, gaze aversion also appears to be functional. This finding is of consequence given that, until recently, little was known about children's use of GA during pedagogical interactions. Research at Stirling University, funded by 3 ESRC grants, has therefore begun to examine children use GA to manage their own processing resources.
Stirling University
When people are engaged in difficult cognitive activity (e.g., retrieving information from memory, on-line processing, speech planning), they typically look away from the object upon which their attention had previously been focused (be it a face, book, VCR monitor, etc.). This act of 'gaze aversion' (GA) can involve a change in one's head and eye orientation, a change in one's eye orientation only, or a covering of the eyes. Adults appear sophisticated in their use of this strategy, and will spontaneously and reliably avert their gaze away from potentially distracting stimuli during cognitive activity. Further, the amount of time spent engaged in GA has been shown to increase as task difficulty increases. So, this act of GA promises to offer an overt cue of cognitive difficulty. More importantly, Glenberg et al. report that, under certain task conditions, when adults engage in GA during the thinking stage of a question-answer interaction their accuracy increases. So, gaze aversion also appears to be functional. This finding is of consequence given that, until recently, little was known about children's use of GA during pedagogical interactions. Research at Stirling University, funded by 3 ESRC grants, has therefore begun to examine children use GA to manage their own processing resources.
Given that visual cues can be distracting, there have been explicit comparisons of task performance under conditions where participants are required to continually monitor a complex visual stimulus (e.g., a face, a dynamic visuospatial scene) with those where they are required to avert their gaze away from that stimulus (e.g., by closing their eyes; looking at the floor). Typically, it is found that performance is better when participants avert their gaze away from the face/visuospatial scene
Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon
The myth that individuals with autism actively avoid people and social eye contact is a persistent belief. However, Frith argued persuasively that individuals with autism do not display intentional gaze avoidance but rather they are unaware of the significance of the eyes, and eye contact in particular, in interpersonal communication and intersubjectivity.
Nurit Yirmiya et al
The gaze contingent environment being developed consists of an amusement ride customized to accommodate a display, sound speakers, a gaze tracker and cameras to observe the behavior of the user.
Rameshsharma Ramloll et al
J. Driver, Davis, Ricciardellis, Maxwell, Simon Baron-Cohen
Looking away from an interlocutor's face during demanding cognitive activity can help adults answer challenging arithmetic and verbal-reasoning questions (Glenberg, Schroeder, & Robertson, 1998). However, such 'gaze aversion' (GA) is poorly applied by 5-year-old school children (Doherty-Sneddon, Bruce, Bonner, Longbotham, & Doyle, 2002). In Experiment 1 we trained ten 5-year-old children to use GA while thinking about answers to questions. This trained group performed significantly better on challenging questions compared with 10 controls given no GA training. In Experiment 2 we found significant and monotonic age-related increments in spontaneous use of GA across 3 cohorts of ten 5-year-old school children (mean ages: 5;02, 5;06 and 5;08). Teaching and encouraging GA during challenging cognitive activity promises to be invaluable in promoting learning, particularly during early primary years.
British Journal of Developmental Psychology
For deaf infants, visual and tactile modalities are particularly important for communicating, interacting, and gaining information about their environment. While hearing parents have been shown to compensate intuitively for a deaf child's inability to perceive auditory cues, deaf parents may offer important insights into the use of other modalities to elicit and maintain a deaf infant's attention. Results of the study indicate a greater reliance among deaf mothers on visual strategies to regain infant attention, and a greater emphasis on vocalizations by hearing mothers, regardless of infant hearing status.
Lynne Koester et al
S. Lutchmaya, Simon Baron-Cohen
Simon Baron-Cohen, Sally Wheelwright, Jolliffe
Gaze aversion, like other commonly held beliefs about liars, is not correlated with lying at all, other studies have shown. Psychologists have done experiments in an attempt to describe differences between the behavior of liars and of people telling the truth, and the results are clear: There is no telltale signal for a fib. Liars do not shift around or touch their noses or clear their throats any more than truth tellers do.
Rick Waters
In two soon-to-be-published reports -- the only ones of their kind in the world -- Bond and a team of 90 scientists studied what almost 5,000 people in 75 countries and in 43 languages believe about liars. Their conclusion: From the United States to Africa to the South Pacific, a dominant cross-cultural norm exists -- people believe that liars avert their gaze. "This is the most prevalent stereotype about deception in the world, Bond said. Yet gaze aversion, like other commonly held beliefs about liars, is not correlated with lying at all, other studies have shown. Psychologists have done experiments in an attempt to describe differences between the behavior of liars and of people telling the truth, and the results are clear: There is no telltale signal for a fib. Liars do not shift around or touch their noses or clear their throats any more than truth tellers do.
Rick Waters, TCU Magazine
Researchers have found that when adults are attempting to answer a challenging question they frequently look away from distractions, which may include the person asking the question or even inanimate objects, such as video cameras and computer screens. Experimental research indicates that individuals who gaze away also tend to answer moderately difficult questions more accurately than they do when asked to remain visually engaged with the questioner. Although adults and older children have developed gazing away as a cognitive strategy, younger children engage in the behavior much less. Indeed, in some interactions, educators and adults interpret gaze aversion as a sign that the child does not know the answer, and they may intervene before the student has had sufficient time to process and answer the question.
Dan Laitsch
A person trying to hide their deception is likely to concentrate mostly on their face. Thus they will look the person they want to deceive in the eye, and try to hide all emotions that they can.
Joey Jensen, Sean Crow
Far from daydreaming, children who avert their gaze when considering their response to a question are more likely to come up with the correct answer. Stirling University psychologists found that, when looking away, five-year-olds answered 72% of questions well. But when children had not been instructed to look away when thinking, they answered just 50% correctly.
British Broadcasting Corporation
Oculomotor studies provide a novel strategy for evaluating the functional integrity of multiple brain systems and cognitive processes in autism. The current study compared pursuit eye movements of 60 high-functioning individuals with autism and 94 intelligence quotient, age and gender matched healthy individuals using ramp and oscillating target tasks. Individuals with autism had normal pursuit latency, but reduced closed-loop pursuit gain when tracking both oscillating and ramp targets. This closed-loop deficit was similar for leftward and rightward pursuit, but the difference between individuals with autism and their age-matched peers was more apparent after mid-adolescence, suggesting reduced maturational achievement of the pursuit system in autism. Individuals with autism also had lower open-loop pursuit gain (initial 100 ms of pursuit) and less accurate initial catch-up saccades during a foveofugal step-ramp task, but these deficits were only seen when targets moved into the right visual field. Pursuit performance in both open- and closed-loop phases was correlated with manual praxis in individuals with autism. Bilateral disturbances in the ability to use internally generated extraretinal signals for closed-loop pursuit implicate frontostriatal or cerebellar circuitry. The hemifield specific deficit in open-loop pursuit demonstrates a lateralized disturbance in the left extrastriate areas that extract visual motion information, or in the transfer of visual motion information to the sensorimotor areas that transform visual information into appropriate oculomotor commands.
Yukari Takarae et al
Eye gaze offers several key cues regarding conversational discourse during face-to-face interaction between people. While a large body of research results exist to document the use of gaze in human-to-human interaction, and in animating realistic embodied avatars, recognition of conversational eye gestures - distinct eye movement patterns relevant to discourse - has received less attention. We analyze eye gestures during interaction with an animated embodied agent and propose a non-intrusive vision-based approach to estimate eye gaze and recognize eye gestures. In our user study, human participants avert their gaze (i.e. with "look-away" or "thinking" gestures) during periods of cognitive load. Using our approach, an agent can visually differentiate whether a user is thinking about a response or is waiting for the agent or robot to take its turn.
Louis-Philippe Morency et al
A new study shows that children who avert their gaze while adults are speaking to them may in fact be concentrating on taking in the facts rather than being distracted by someone's face.
Jo Revill
We need to consider idiosyncratic ways that individuals take in and process information. We need to recognize how conventional social expectations may, in fact, interfere with learning for some.
Rozella Stewart
The results suggest that the basic perceptual sensitivity to gaze direction is present both in young children with autism and their typically developing peers. Thus, although in naturalistic situations toddlers with autism do not follow the gaze of others, their visual attention is cued automatically by perceived direction of eye movement.Other aspects of their performance, however, suggest that the 2-year-olds with autism may use a different strategy to process information about gaze than their typical peers. Whereas typical children take more time to process eye movement than a movement of an inanimate object; no such differentiation was present in children with autism. These findings raise a fascinating question regarding the developmental trajectory of the impairments in gaze following by children with autism. We hypothesize that due to the critically low frequency of looking at faces in general, and at the eyes in particular, toddlers with autism have very limited opportunities to learn about their predictive value and social meaning. Thus, despite intact basic perceptual skills, such as sensitivity to changes in gaze direction, their development of early social-cognitive skills may follow a different trajectory as compared with typical peers.
K. Chawarska et al
We argue that eye gaze probably taps unconscious but core insights into social behavior and as such is better than verbal measures at differentiating children with autism from mentally handicapped controls.
Ted Ruffman et al
Researchers have found that children who avert their gaze when asked a question do so in different ways according to age. A group of psychologists at the University of Stirling, led by Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, have found that gaze aversion - the theory by which someone purposefully avoids looking at an interrogator's face during the thinking stage of a response - manifests itself in different ways among children. Children aged between five and eight are more likely to take short, rapid glances around the room when thinking, while older children take slower, longer glances, from left to right, or up and down.
UK Guardian
Tracking the correlation between eye movements and brain activity, the researchers found that in autistic subjects, the amygdala -- an emotion center in the brain associated with negative feelings -- lights up to an abnormal extent during a direct gaze upon a non-threatening face. Writing in the March 6 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, the scientists also report that because autistic children avert eye contact, the brain's fusiform region, which is critical for face perception, is less active than it would be during a normally developing child's stare.
Richard Davidson et al, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Children with autism, whatever their mental age, began to follow head turn and gaze direction years later than typically developing children. Developments in attention and language are proposed as possible factors to account for this developmental delay.
Susan R. Leekam, Emma Hunnisett
So it appears that there are at least two reasons we look away from others while we talk to them: because of our self-consciousness or embarrassment at the intimacy of the situation, and because averting our gaze enables us to focus on the ideas behind what we're saying. This is not to say there aren't additional reasons. As Doherty-Sneddon and Phelps point out, there are different expectations in different cultures for how much we should look at each other. However, their work does appear to demonstrate that there is more to gaze aversion than just social nicety.
Dave Munger, Cognitive Daily

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