Picture: A woman looking away 
Children with autism react the
same - if someone looks straight
at them or not; © Hemera

The research compared brain activity between 16 typically developing children and 16 high-functioning children with autism. While undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), both groups were shown a series of faces depicting angry, fearful, happy and neutral expressions. In half the faces, the eyes were averted; with the other half, the faces stared back at the children.

With the typically developing group, the researchers found significant differences in activity in a part of the brain called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), which is known to play a role in evaluating emotions. While these children looked at the direct-gaze faces, the VLPFC became active; with the averted-gaze pictures, it quieted down. In contrast, the autistic children showed no activity in this region of the brain whether they were looking at faces with a direct or an indirect gaze.

“This part of the brain helps us discern the meaning and significance of what another person is thinking,” Mari Davies, a University of California - Los Angeles graduate student in psychology said. “When responding to someone looking straight at you, as compared to someone who´s looking away, the brain discerns a difference. When the other person looks away, the brain quiets down.”

For instance, with angry expressions, the brain may quiet down, because when a negative gaze is averted, it is no longer seen as a direct threat. While the results show the key role of eye gaze in signalling communicative intent, it also shows that autistic children, even when gazing directly into someone´s eyes, don´t recognize visual cues and don´t process that information.

That may be why children diagnosed with autism have varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social interactions and display restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour.

MEDICA.de; Source: University of California - Los Angeles