Mechanisms of Diminished Attention to Eyes in Autism

Objective: Two hypotheses, gaze aversion and gaze indifference, are commonly cited to explain a diagnostic hallmark of autism: reduced attention to others’ eyes. The two posit different areas of atypical brain function, different pathogenic models of disability, and different possible treatments. Evidence for and against each hypothesis is mixed but has thus far focused on older children and adults. The authors evaluated both mechanistic hypotheses in two sets of experiments at the time of initial diagnosis.

Method: Eye-tracking data were collected in 86 2-year-olds: 26 with autism, tested at initial diagnosis; 38 matched typically developing children; and 22 matched developmentally delayed children. In two experiments, the authors measured response to direct and implicit cueing to look at the eyes.

Results: When directly cued to look at the eyes, 2-year-olds with autism did not look away faster than did typically developing children; their latency varied neither categorically nor dimensionally by degree of eye cueing. Moreover, direct cueing had a stronger sustained effect on their amount of eye-looking than on that of typically developing children. When presented with implicit social cues for eye-looking, 2-year-olds with autism neither shifted their gaze away nor more subtly averted their gaze to peripheral locations.

Conclusions: The results falsify the gaze aversion hypothesis; instead, at the time of initial diagnosis, diminished eye-looking in autism is consistent with passive insensitivity to the social signals in others’ eyes.

Keywords: Autism; Child Psychiatry; Eye Contact; Gaze Aversion.