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J Neurosci. 2010 Sep 15;30(37):12281-7. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0688-10.2010.

Atypical reflexive gaze patterns on emotional faces in autism spectrum disorders.

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Department of Educational Science and Psychology, Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin, 14195 Berlin, Germany.


Atypical scan paths on emotional faces and reduced eye contact represent a prominent feature of autism symptomatology, yet the reason for these abnormalities remains a puzzle. Do individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) fail to orient toward the eyes or do they actively avoid direct eye contact? Here, we used a new task to investigate reflexive eye movements on fearful, happy, and neutral faces. Participants (ASDs: 12; controls: 11) initially fixated either on the eyes or on the mouth. By analyzing the frequency of participants' eye movements away from the eyes and toward the eyes, respectively, we explored both avoidance and orientation reactions. The ASD group showed a reduced preference for the eyes relative to the control group, primarily characterized by more frequent eye movements away from the eyes. Eye-tracking data revealed a pronounced influence of active avoidance of direct eye contact on atypical gaze in ASDs. The combination of avoidance and reduced orientation into an individual index predicted emotional recognition performance. Crucially, this result provides evidence for a direct link between individual gaze patterns and associated social symptomatology. These findings thereby give important insights into the social pathology of ASD, with implications for future research and interventions.

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