A study of impaired judgment of eye-gaze direction and related face-processing deficits in autism spectrum disorders

Simon Wallace, Michael Coleman, Olivier Pascalis, Anthony Bailey
Perception 2006, 35 (12): 1651-64
The purpose of this study was to examine whether individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) use the same cognitive strategies as typically developing individuals when processing eye-gaze direction. Subjects viewed pictures of whole faces, the eye region alone, and pairs of arrows presented for 40, 70, or 100 ms, and responded according to the direction the eyes were looking or the arrows pointing (left, right, or straight ahead). Experiment 1 demonstrated that typically developing adults (n = 41) were more accurate and showed shorter reaction times when judging direction of averted eye gaze in the context of the whole face than when only the eyes were visible (eye-region-alone condition). Furthermore, in the eye-region-alone condition participants were more accurate and faster at judging direct eye gaze than averted eye gaze. The same task was used in experiment 2 to compare the performance of a group of individuals with ASD (n = 24) with that of a group of IQ-matched typically developing individuals (n = 26). The performance of the control participants was identical to that observed in experiment 1. Individuals with ASD were able to judge eye-gaze direction accurately at short exposure duration; however, they failed to show the typical advantage for judging averted gaze in whole faces and the increased sensitivity to direct gaze in the eye-region-alone condition. The findings are discussed in terms of impairments to discrete gaze-processing and face-processing mechanisms, and the connectivity between these mechanisms.

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