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Connie Wang, Eiko Shimojo, Shinsuke Shimojo; Don't look at the eyes: Live interaction reveals strong eye avoidance behavior in autism. Journal of Vision 2015;15(12):648. doi: https://doi.org/10.1167/15.12.648.
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© ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)
Atypical social gaze is commonly observed in individuals with autism (ASD) in real-world and clinical settings. Laboratory tasks using social stimuli have shown reduced gaze to face and eyes and reduced social orienting in high-functioning adults compared to neurotypical (NT) controls, although differences were often marginal, perhaps due to static stimuli or non-interactive tasks. In this study, we investigated gaze during live, naturalistic interactions between pairs of participants conversing freely about their interests, while gaze and video were recorded for both. Results from 8 NT and 7 ASD participants revealed distinct gaze patterns, distinguishing the groups. All NT participants displayed a consistent pattern of high gaze frequency and duration (mean=54%) to the eyes and low gaze to the mouth (mean=1%). ASD participants showed significantly lower gaze frequency (mean=10%, p< 0.00000001) and duration (mean=7%, p< 0.000001) to the eyes, with higher frequency (mean=33%, p< 0.02) and duration (mean=39%, p< 0.02) to the mouth, and no difference for the face (NT mean=77%, ASD mean=72%, n.s.). Only NTs showed a significant preference for the left eye in frequency (p< 0.05) and duration (p< 0.04). Mouth gaze split ASD participants into subgroups of high (N=4) or low (N=3) frequency, but long mouth fixations characterized ASD overall (640 ms) and distinguished (p< 0.01) from short fixations (210 ms) in NT. Together, these results show that live, interactive experiments can detect striking differences in social gaze between NT and ASD groups. The NT pattern is defined by high eye contact with occasional, passing glances at the mouth, while ASD shows a strong, spontaneous tendency to avoid the eyes and prolonged fixations to the mouth. Diversion of gaze to the mouth or other face regions (e.g. nose, cheeks, forehead) suggests a compensatory mechanism for eye avoidance that allows face gaze without direct eye-to-eye contact in ASD.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2015
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