[Posted on 25 July, 2017 by Nouchine Hadjikhani]
One of the first things you may notice when interacting with a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the way they seem to avoid looking you in the eyes. In fact, this behavior is one of the diagnostic criteria of autism – but the question is: why is it so?
Think about it: the amount of time that we – neurotypicals – spend looking directly into someone else’s eyes is a very subtle, very delicate thing, yet we do it naturally more or less effortlessly. Indeed, a prolonged eye contact can be interpreted as flirtatious, or threatening. In fact, researchers have even come up with the goldilocks, “just right” eye contact duration during an interaction (3.2 seconds, see Scientific American article https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/eye-contact-how-long-is-too-long/).
But for those with ASD, it seems that even a short time of eye-contact is difficult to sustain, and people on the spectrum have been describing it as extremely unpleasant, stressful, even reporting that ‘it burns’. They say that it is very difficult to listen to what someone is saying AND look at them at the same time. This of course has negative repercussions on a lot of different levels.
Imagine: if as a child you have aversion to eye-contact and to looking into faces, you will miss a lot of important social cues, because so much information about our interactions is present in the eyes, and you may never learn to decipher them. Then, later, as you will need to interact with others, not looking them in the eyes may be misinterpreted as a lack of interest, or even as being impolite.
We recently published an article that seems to clarify why people with autism do not look others in the eye. In an experiment where we compared the very same stimuli (short movies of faces going from a neutral to an emotional expression) but that contained – or not – a cross in the eye-region, we demonstrated that while those with ASD had similar activation in the fast-processing threat system as typical controls in a free-viewing condition, in the condition where they had to look in the eye-region, that threat-processing system became abnormally activated. This is very important for several reasons: first, it objectively shows that there is a sensation of danger experienced during eye-contact in those with ASD, that is even present for positive emotions such as a happy face. Then, it helps to explain why there are so many reports of abnormal activation in the so-called social brain in ASD: if indeed those with ASD actively avoid looking in the eye region in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed, then they will miss many opportunities to learn the very subtle signs that are communicated with this region of the face, and will miss the critical input needed for the development of reading these cues, and ultimately developing the areas of the brain that are crucial for understanding social signals. Finally, it indicates that simply forcing kids or adults with ASD to look in the eyes when they don’t may be counterproductive, creating stress and anxiety, and that finding ways to slowly habituate them to do so may help preventing this. And for those adults who never got habituated, acceptance of their gaze avoidance by friends and coworkers might be beneficial.