New research is debunking the claim that autistic children don't make eye contact with others either on purpose or due to stress. Many people in the scientific community now believe that autistic children don't make eye contact simply because they can't pick up on the importance of visual cues.
This research was conducted at the Marcus Autism Center, Emory University School of Medicine, and the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. 86 two-year-old children were selected for this survey, some who had autism and others who didn't. Researchers used advanced eye-tracking technology to gauge and record each child's eye contact.
The autistic children in this study were all recently diagnosed with the developmental disorder. This was important for researchers because it helped them conjecture about the root cause of this eye aversion.
Each child was shown a video on a computer screen. Before the video began, an image of a staring person appeared on the screen designed to get the child's attention. After this image went away, a video appeared in the same place where the picture was.
Researchers found that the autistic children and the non-autistic children all looked straight into the eyes of the image. This shows that autistic children don't look away from a person's eyes on purpose.
To further illustrate this point, the researchers continued this study by introducing more complex faces and videos with different social cues. The researchers found that the autistic children didn't look at the person's eyes as much as the other children. This indicates that the autistic children simply don't see the social significance of different eye cues and facial gestures.
While this evidence doesn't necessarily disprove the notion that averted eye contact is a telltale sign of autism, it proves the fact that the main reason behind this symptom isn't merely stress. Autistic children just have a more difficult time gathering social cues from another person's eyes. Of course, this lack of comprehension can lead to increased stress, but that social stress seems to be a byproduct of the autistic child's initial inability to grasp the complexity of eye cues.
Professors working on this study hope that their research will help doctors, parents, and teachers develop new strategies for helping autistic children develop into self-reliant adults. While they believe teachers may have good intentions in trying to get autistic children to look others straight in the eyes, it may only be intensifying the problem.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that 1 in 68 American children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This disorder is far more common in boys, with 1 in 42 boys being diagnosed with ASD compared with 1 in 189 girls.
The most common symptoms of ASD are speech problems, inability to comprehend others' feelings, excessive anxiety, nervous tics, and awkward social interaction. Most often doctors recommend autistic children see psychiatrists, speech therapists, and/or family therapists.
Contributors to this study included the National Institute of Mental Health, the Marcus Foundation, the Whitehead Foundation, and the Autism Science Foundation. This study was published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.