25 Nov Children With Autism Miss Social Cues of Eye Contact
MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Warren Jones, PhD
Director of Research, Marcus Autism Center
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
CHOA Distinguished Chair in Autism
Asst. Professor, Dept. of Pediatrics
Emory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, Georgia 30329
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Response: These results help clarify an important and longstanding question in autism: why do children with autism look less at other people’s eyes?
Two ideas for reduced eye contact in autism have been proposed:
– One idea is that children with autism avoid eye contact because they find it stressful and negative.
– The other idea is that children with autism look less at other people’s eyes because the social cues from the eyes are not perceived as particularly meaningful or important.
This study is important because each idea reflects a very different understanding of what autism is. And maybe even more importantly, each idea reflects a very different view about the right treatment approach to autism and to reduced eye contact in autism.
To answer this question, we used eye-tracking technology to study how 86 children with and without autism paid attention to other people’s eyes.
Children were tested when they were just two years old, at their time of initial diagnosis.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: What we found shows us that children with autism are not avoiding eye contact, and that they don’t find eye contact inherently aversive or threatening.
They do look less at people’s eyes, but they look less at people’s eyes because they don’t appear to understand the significance and importance of the social information conveyed by the eyes.
This tells us that, particularly in young children, we would be best served by trying to help children with autism to engage socially with other people, and helping them learn how to understand social cues and social information.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Response: This study tells us about why children with autism make less eye contact.
Future studies should focus on how the brain becomes specialized for social interaction and how social interaction is rewarding and reinforcing to typically-developing children.
It also underscores the importance of both early interventions and later treatments that focus on improving social engagement and understanding of social information in individuals with autism.
Because this study found that young children with autism miss others’ social cues instead of specifically avoiding eye contact, treatments that aim to support broader social engagement and social motivation may be most effective at addressing autism symptoms.
MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Response: If parents have concerns about their child’s development, they should talk to their pediatrician.
Another great source for information is the CDC website. Parents can learn about important milestones in child development and about early behavioral red flags. Visit the CDC website or just search for “CDC learn the signs act early”.
Here’s additional detail about the study specifics and testing:
• The children watched a series of carefully made videos. Before each video, we flashed a small picture to capture the child’s attention, and when they looked to where the picture had been, they found that they were either looking directly at another person’s eyes or looking away from the eyes.
• When we did this repeatedly, we found that young children with autism continued to look straight at the eyes. Like their peers without autism, they didn’t look away from the eyes or try to avoid the eyes in any way. In addition, when varying levels of socially meaningful eye contact were presented, children with autism looked less at other people’s eyes than their peers without autism.
• These results go against the idea that young children with autism actively avoid eye contact.
• They looked less at the eyes not because of an aversion to making eye contact, but because they don’t appear to understand the social significance of eye contact.
MedicalResearch.com: Thank you for your contribution to the MedicalResearch.com community.
Mechanisms of Diminished Attention to Eyes in Autism
Jennifer M. Moriuchi, M.A., Ami Klin, Ph.D., Warren Jones, Ph.D.
Received: September 25, 2015
Accepted: June 08, 2016
Published online: November 18, 2016
Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.
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