Brief Report: Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder Show Normal Attention to Eye-Gaze Information—Evidence from a New Change Blindness Paradigm.
Source:Fletcher-Watson, S., Leekam, S.R., Findlay, J.M., Stanton, E.C. (2008). Brief Report: Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder Show Normal Attention to Eye-Gaze Information—Evidence from a New Change Blindness Paradigm. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders DOI: 10.1007/s10803-008-0548-8

One of the most common features of children with autism is limited shared attention, and in particular gaze following. That is, when a typically developing child sees another person change eye direction towards a particular object or region (to the left or right) the typically developing child will usually turn “to see” what the other person is seeing. However, it is common for children with autism to have limited gaze following (not turning), which sometimes has been seen as evidence for limitations in Theory of Mind. The basic idea is that gaze following reflects an understanding that “the other person” is thinking that there is something interesting in the direction of the gaze, therefore I should turn and see what the other person is seeing (although there is controversy as to whether this is a reflexive behavior instead).

The authors of this study wanted to examine if young adults with autism have the same gaze following limitations as children. They compared a group of 36 young adults with high functioning autism or Asperger’s to a comparison group of typically developing young adults of equal IQs. The participants were shown sets of two identical pictures separated by a blank image. They were asked to identify the difference between the pictures. In some pictures the difference was simply the gaze direction of the subject presented on the pictures. Other changes included the presence or absence or eye glasses (or “spectacles” since this was a British study) or a change in a piece of clothing. Results: There was no difference between the two groups. People with Autism and those with typical development were both more accurate at identifying eye gaze than the presence of eye glasses. In addition, they were both faster in identifying eye gaze than eye glasses. What is most interesting about this study is that the presence/absence of eye glasses is more visually evident (bigger change of features on the picture) than changes in eye gaze. Yet, both groups were able to identify eye gaze faster. The results speak to the importance of eye gaze as a social signal and the tendency to direct attention to eye gaze when the eyes are visible. It seems that young adult with high functioning autism appear to have a normative attention bias towards eye gaze and can recognize it as well as typically developing young adults.

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