When listening to people talking, children with autism look away more often than their peers. This action can cause them to miss important nonverbal clues, according to research by Durham and Northumbria Universities in England. The research was presented at the British Science Festival, in Newcastle, England on September 9.
Researchers compared children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to their typically developing peers. The children with ASD looked away for longer periods when they were listening to someone speaking. By looking away more often when parents, friends or teachers are speaking, children miss non-verbal cues including facial expressions and hand gestures.
“We all modulate our gaze at certain times during an interaction, whether we have autism or whether we are developing typically, but it is when they are listening that children with autism seem to do something different,” commented co-author Debbie Riby of Durham University.
The researchers stressed that asking children with ASD to maintain eye contact when listening makes it more difficult for them to develop an appropriate or accurate response. “Looking away does not always indicate a lack of interest or attention but may be a critical indicator of thinking,” said principal investigator Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon from Northumbria University.
The researchers recommend:
- Any gaze training for children with ASD be started at an early age
- Teachers are given “information on how gaze might provide an insight into problem solving and concentration in the classroom.”
The research was the result of three studies evaluating gaze aversion in different situations. The studies were:
- 2012 study examining gaze aversion during question and answer sessions involving math questions.
- 2012 study analyzing gaze aversion in face-to-face interactions.
- 2013 study investigating gaze aversion in social interactions.