Why autistic people won't look others in the eye
People with autism often avoid eye contact, with some complaining it feels like 'burning'.
Often other people think they are being shy or indifferent, or that it is a sign of social awkwardness.
But now researchers have used brain scans of autistic patients to back up their complaints that eye contact is stressful and uncomfortable for them.
Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in the US found that eye contact overstimulates the brain of an autistic person.
Researchers have used brain scans of autistic patients to back up their complaints that eye contact is stressful and uncomfortable for them (stock)
Dr Nouchine Hadkikhani, author of the study, said: 'The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern.
'Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from over-activation in a particular part of the brain.'
Humans are from birth drawn to the eyes of the human face. This activates the subcortical system of the brain.
In autistic people, this region is oversensitive to the effects of direct gaze and emotional expression.
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Being repeatedly affected by the bug was also found to increase the risk by 300 per cent, Columbia University experts said.
Dr Hadjikhani and her colleagues measured differences in activation within the face-processing components of the subcortical system in people with autism and in control participants as they viewed faces either freely or when constrained to just looking at the eyes.
Autistic people had similar results to non-autistic people while allowed to look freely at the faces.
But when they were instructed to concentrate on the eyes, brain scans showed the autistic participants' brains were activated to a much greater degree.
This was especially true with fearful faces, although similar effects were observed when viewing happy, angry and neutral faces.
The researchers say their findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, support the idea that there is an imbalance between the the brain's 'excitatory' network, which reacts to stimulation, and inhibitory network, which calms it down.
Dr Hadjikhani said: 'The findings indicate that forcing children with autism to look into someone's eyes in behavioral therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them.
'An approach involving slow habituation to eye contact may help them overcome this overreaction and be able to handle eye contact in the long run, thereby avoiding the cascading effects that this eye-avoidance has on the development of the social brain.'
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June 16, 2017
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