Autistic children turn away from faces while thinking, especially while pondering difficult or complex material, according to a novel study by Northumbria University.
Although usually encouraged to maintain eye contact to promote social skills, children with autism seem to follow the same mannerisms as other children when processing complex information or difficult tasks. ‘Gaze aversion’ has been shown in previous research to improve the accuracy of responses.
For the study, researchers asked 20 children with autism (characterized by reduced sociability) and 18 with William’s Syndrome (associated with hypersociability) to answer mental math questions. Both groups used gaze aversion while thinking and increased their gaze aversion as the questions became more difficult.
“Previous research found that children and adults tend to avert their gaze when thinking something through and this principle can now be applied to children with autism too,” said Professor Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Life Sciences at Northumbria University.
“Although social skills training is important in encouraging eye contact with children with autism, this research demonstrates that gaze aversion, at a certain point within an interaction, is functional in helping them to concentrate on difficult tasks.”
While retrieving information from memory or trying to solve a complex problem, looking at a person’s face can actually interfere with the processing of relevant information. In part, this is because faces are such a rich source of information that demands our attention.
“This research will have a major impact in terms of the way teachers interact with these children. When teachers or parents ask a child a difficult question and they look away, our advice would be to wait to allow them to process the information and focus on finding a suitable response,” she said.
The research will be published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
Source: Northumbia University