Research now shows that those with Autism avoid eye contact to prevent pain and anxiety, not because they are not interested in being social.
For those with Autism, making eye contact with others is difficult, and often seemingly impossible.
A team of researchers from the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the reasoning behind the common lack of eye contact made by those who have Autism. The previous thought has been that those with Autism simply don’t want to look others in the eyes, and this is often inappropriately misconceived as lack of social warmth and/or interaction.
The researchers found that for those with Autism, making eye contact with others is often physically painful for them, even mimicking pain that one might consider ‘burning.’ Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani is an associate professor of Radiology at Harvard Medical School and says that their results show that averting eyes so as not to make eye contact is one way that those with Autism can calm down the overactive arousal that happens in a specific part of the brain.
The brain’s subcortical system is what orients us toward other faces when we are newborns, and also is important in the perception of emotion. It is a system that can be activated by eye contact, and those with Autism seem especially sensitive to that activation. The researchers asked those with Autism what it felt like, and what happened when they were forced to look at the eyes of people who showed different emotions.
MRI imaging showed a difference in the subcortical systems in people with Autism when compared to those not diagnosed, and over-activation was found in the participants with Autism when they had to focus on the part of the face with eyes. Particularly with fearful faces, the activation was noticed, although it was also observed when eye contact was made with those who had happy, neutral or angry faces.
The research supports the belief that in those with Autism, there is an imbalance of the brain’s excitatory and inhibitory networks, meaning that the opportunity for overstimulation and/or under-stimulation of brain systems is more prevalent, and eye contact can in fact, create an abnormal reaction in the brain. This overactivity can even help an aversion to eye contact develop, which can, in turn, have negative consequences on the development of the brain’s social parts.
Essentially, for many with Autism, looking at another person’s eyes is a similar feeling to someone looking at the sun — making the person want to look away immediately.
Dr. Hadjikhani says that helping Autistic children develop gradual acclimation to eye contact may eventually lead the over action in the brain to not happen, or to lessen the severity, and allow more eye contact, and thus, social development to occur.
This research combats earlier theories by British psychologists, Simon Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith, that those with Autism are unable to imagine what others may be thinking and feeling, or “mindblind,” a term they created in the late 8os. In fact, this new research suggests more that a person with Autism is more in tune with themselves than may have been previously thought, and understands that averting eye contact will help settle anxiety and physical discomfort.
The research may change the way therapy for kids with Autism happens, as forcing children on the spectrum to look at them in order to ‘teach eye contact’ may in fact be the opposite of what needs to happen, and may encourage instead a more acclimating adjustment.
While eye contact may be tied to early survival instinct and trust, working to increase eye contact ability in those on the spectrum may need to be completely rethought in strategy and form. It may need to change from forced gazing to gradual exposure and comfortability, as well as more anxiety-reducing coping methods.