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Excuse Me For Looking Away, My Brain Is Too Excited: Understanding the "Averted Gaze" of Autism

Update Date: Jun 19, 2017 07:53 PM EDT

Ever try to make eye contact with someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and they just won't budge? Perhaps you think they are being rude or distracted. Think again.

Researchers at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital found that no, people with ASD aren't being rude nor are they distracted. Instead, they are overwhelmed with information.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Study author Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani instructed the ASD subjects to look at faces, constraining their gaze to the eyes. In another condition, participants were instructed to "free" their gaze and look wherever they wished.

The result was clear: the regions of the brain involving face perception were overactive during the "constrained" gaze condition, especially for faces that reflected fear. 

This is important when understanding autism. "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," says Dr. Hadjikhani. "Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain."

These findings support the hypothesis regarding an imbalance between the signaling networks: excitatory (neurotransmitters that stimulate the brain) and inhibitory (neurotransmitters that calm the brain). According to this idea, these signals are so unbalanced that the excitatory signaling network is strengthened in the circuitry that operates in the regions involving face perception. As a result, eye contact is avoided and the brain's social nature develops outside of the norm.

"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," says Hadjikhani. "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."

Thankfully, this research can help with filling the holes of misunderstanding when communicating with someone with ASD. They aren't being rude. They are just at the whim of an amazing neural anomaly that's overly excited.

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