It is a known fact that autistic individuals avoid eye gaze when they are interacting. Although many interpret the avoidance as a form of social indifference, recent developments involving autistic individuals suggest otherwise.
Many autistic individuals say looking in the eyes is often stressful or uncomfortable to them. A few individuals also stressed the “burning sensations” they feel in their eyes.
A team of investigators believes this could be attributed to neurological causes. The team based out of the Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital are studying the brain mechanism of a human that could reveal the reasons behind these behavioral traits.
Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani says that these findings help us understand that lack of interest among autistic individuals cannot be completely blamed on their lack of concern.
However, says the doctor, these results highlight that the behavior arises to lessen the excessive arousal that is seen to stem from over-activation in particular regions of the brain.
This research gives prime importance to the brain’s sub-cortical system of an individual. The sub-cortical system is a region that is responsible for the eye orientation in newborns that later on gains importance in developing an individual’s emotional perception.
Dr. Hadjikhani further adds that these sub-cortical systems become active with eye contact. However, individuals with autism are seen to be highly sensitive toward emotional expressions of others and direct gaze.
Further, Dr. Hadjikhani made notable observations during the course of the study by interviewing autistic individuals and trying to understand the many emotions they tend to exhibit.
The doctor and her team measured the differences in the facial expressions of the autistic individuals with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging.
A group of participants were observed when they were made to view other faces using their free eye movements. The other group had to view the faces by constraining their eye movements to only the eye region.
The two groups of participants were observed and their brain structural activations were seen to be in-sync during the course of free moving.
However, over activations were observed in autistic individuals.
Over activations were regularly seen in fearful faces.
Additionally, similar reactions were observed while individuals viewed angry, happy or neutral faces.
The study aims to effectively engage autistic individuals by understanding the reasons responsible for eye gaze avoidance.
Nevertheless, Dr. Hadjikhani points out that forcing young autistic child to maintain their eye gaze by looking into other eyes during behavioral therapy sessions could backfire and lead to more anxieties in the youngsters. Hadjikhani is also an associate professor in the department of radiology at Harvard School.
A different approach has to be practised which involves slow habituations to eye contact that can help one overcome their overreaction symptoms, says the doctor.
She further adds, by being able to effectively handle eye contact, a person can effectively avoid the varied effects that eye avoidance has on the social brain development.