Why Eye Contact Is Rare Among People With Autism

Summary: During eye contact, those with ASD have significantly reduced activity in the dorsal parietal cortex compared to those who are not on the autism spectrum.

Source: Yale

A hallmark of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, is the reluctance to make eye contact with others in natural conditions.

Although eye contact is a critically important part of everyday interactions, scientists have been limited in studying the neurological basis of live social interaction with eye-contact in ASD because of the inability to image the brains of two people simultaneously.

However, using an innovative technology that enables imaging of two individuals during live and natural conditions, Yale researchers have identified specific brain areas in the dorsal parietal region of the brain associated with the social symptomatology of autism.

The study, published Nov. 9 in the journal PLOS ONE, finds that these neural responses to live face and eye-contact may provide a biomarker for the diagnosis of ASD as well as provide a test of the efficacy of treatments for 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 co-corresponding author Joy Hirsch, Elizabeth Mears and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, Comparative Medicine, and of Neuroscience at Yale.

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.

This shows a child's eyes
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. Image is in the public domain

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, the more severe the overall social symptoms of ASD as measured by ADOS (Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, 2nd Edition) scores, the less activity was observed 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 typical increase in neural coupling was not observed in ASD, and is consistent with the difficulties 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.

About this autism research news

Author: Bess Connolly
Source: Yale
Contact: Bess Connolly – Yale
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: The findings will appear in PLOS ONE

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  1. Is ASD simply an emotional state. We need to feel confident to look into other people’s eyes.

  2. And what does that part of the brain do? How does low or high activity in that part of the brain effect other parts of the brain? Does it inhibit or stimulate data analysis or emotional processing? What roles does that part of the brain influence? Is it a reaction or an action source for thoughts, words, movement, ideas, etc? This article doesn’t explain anything.

  3. I had two brothers who were autistic; the elders had a lot of the features associated with autistics whereas the other was more savant, he did not speak until he was 4 years old. The brother who was in between was in a genius range. My eldest brother was born in 1944, my parents had no real idea what was his issue; as he became older his mathematics and ability to define words became phenomenal. The other autistic went on to teach mathematics and electronics. I only have one other brother left he’s approximately 14 months older than myself; I am now 70 years old, I was the one who was able to determine my brothers autism.

  4. Could also just *ask* an autistic person why eye contact is rare: it’s really uncomfortable, like the mental equivalent of trying to drink from a fire hose.

    1. *finger snaps* If only they would ask…

      I can’t concentrate on what I am saying if I have to look into someone’s eyes… I feel like I get too much “non conversation related feedback” from my hyper-empathy and trauma responses… I second guessing everything I am saying and the overthinking/anxiety of being “too much” or “misunderstood” starts creeeeping in and then the adhd wiring starts ramping up to compensate with weird mood lifting “jokes” but it’s all just horribly awkward turtle by then… ><

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