Title: Sensitivity to eye gaze in autism: Is it normal? Is it automatic? Is it social?
Authors: KATE NATION AND SOPHIA PENNY
Source: Development and Psychopathology 20 (2008), 79–97

The authors of this article conducted a theoretical review of the findings related to “Gaze Following” behaviors in children with Autism. Gaze following is an extremely important behavior that affects our social understanding and safety. Gaze following refers to our tendency and ability to follow the line of sight of another person. For example, imagine that you are talking to someone and suddenly your partner looks rapidly to his left only using his eyes. What do you do? Likely, you will turn to see what he is looking at. In addition to serving an important role in keeping us safe, gaze following also has a major social component and provides us with cues about the thoughts and intentions of others. The authors first reviewed the findings on how gaze following develops in typically developing children. In average, the typically developing child shows a marked interest in faces and the eyes area by 2 months of age. In addition these children can discriminate gaze direction by 4 months of age, and begin to spontaneously turn in the direction of someone’s gaze by 6 month of age. In contrast, the authors noted that children with autism show a limited interest in looking at faces and the eye region during infancy, and have difficulty following someone’s eye gaze in most settings. Three interesting points presented by the authors should be noted. First, the authors provided evidence that this limitation is not due to an inability to understand where other people are looking. In fact, studies have shown that children with autism understand the mechanism of eye movement as an indicator of where someone is looking. Second, there is significant evidence that children with autism have low sensitivity to eye gaze and in some cases an aversion to direct shared gaze (direct eye contact). Finally, the authors reviewed some compelling evidence that suggests that children with autism have impairments in “reflexive” orienting to social stimuli (such as turning towards the location where someone is talking) and that this limitation prevents these children from learning important information about the utility of eye gaze, possibly affecting the development of gaze following. Thus, the evidence suggests that while children with autism understand gaze direction, they seem to present limited use of gaze as a tool to gather information about social situations, and specially about the thoughts and intentions of others, and that this limitation may follow a developmental trajectory that begins in early infancy.

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