OK for Children with Autism to Avert Gaze

 Autism to Avert GazeA study by Northumbria University has found that when processing complicated information that children with autism react in the same way as children without autism: by averting their gaze to think.

Children with autism and usually encouraged to maintain eye contact to promote social skills, however they seem to naturally follow the suit of their peers by using ‘gaze aversion’ when working on difficult tasks.  This behavior has been shown to increase the accuracy of responses.

Researchers, led by Prof Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Life Sciences at Northumbria University, asked 20 children with autism (characterized by reduced sociability) and 18 with William’s Syndrome (associated with hypersociability) to answer mental math questions. Both groups averted their gaze while thinking and increased their gaze aversion as the questions became harder.

Prof Doherty-Sneddon, who will present her findings on 15 March as part of Newcastle ScienceFest, being held in the city to celebrate scientific endeavor and discovery

“Previous research found that children and adults tend to avert their gaze when thinking something through and this principle can now be applied to children with autism too,” said Professor Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Life Sciences at Northumbria University.

“Although social skills training is important in encouraging eye contact with children with autism, this research demonstrates that gaze aversion, at a certain point within an interaction, is functional in helping them to concentrate on difficult tasks.”

When trying to retrieve information from memory or work out complex problem-solving, looking at someone’s face can actually interfere with the processing of task relevant information. Faces attract our attention as facial expressions convey so much information.

She added: “This research will have a major impact in terms of the way teachers interact with these children. When teachers or parents ask a child a difficult question and they look away, our advice would be to wait to allow them to process the information and focus on finding a suitable response.”