The new research also shows that children with an autism spectrum disorder tend to focus just below the eyes, instead of at the pupils.
Research has shown that children with autism have trouble recognizing others’ emotions and faces. They tend to gaze at faces differently than non-autistic children — such as preferring to look at the mouth instead of the eyes.
This may help explain why they miss social cues and may have difficulty interacting with others.
The new study, published in the Journal of Vision, included 20 Chinese children with autism, 21 age-matched controls and 21 controls matched for intelligence.
First, the children viewed pictures of three faces. Then the researchers showed them a series of faces, some new and some not, and asked the children whether they’d seen that face before. The children’s gaze was followed with an eye-tracking apparatus.
The findings showed that children with autism spent less time looking at faces and did more poorly at face recognition than both of the control groups.
When the researchers compared how long each group looked at specific areas of faces, however, they found that children with autism spent about the same amount of time looking at particular areas as the other groups do.
The eye region, however, was an exception. Children with autism look less at the left eye and more at the right, compared to controls. They are also more likely to look just below the right eye than at the pupil.
The researchers note that children with autism may avoid this area since the left side of the face tends to convey more emotional information than the right side, as some studies have shown.
The study also investigated how the children shifted their gaze around the face — for example, how often they looked from the eyes to the mouth.
Overall, these patterns were similar across the groups, but the children with autism were less likely to look from one eye to another compared to controls.
In a different study, published in Autism Research, researchers found similar results for eye contact in participants with an average age of 20 years.
Source: Journal of Vision