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Cognition and behavior: People with autism don't blink in sync

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Jessica Wright
9 August 2011

Face mask: Typical individuals blink their eyes in sync with an actor on a screen, but only when they can see his whole face.

Unlike typical controls, adults with autism do not synchronize their eye blinks with those of other people, according to a study published in the July issue of Neuropsychologia1.

These same individuals look at the eyes as much as the controls do, however, suggesting that the result is not because those with autism avoid the eye region.

Several studies have shown that individuals with autism do not tend to look at the eye region when conversing with others and are less adept at recognizing others' emotions compared with controls. A 2010 study also found that children with autism are less likely than controls to yawn sympathetically, suggesting that they lack an otherwise shared biological impulse to match the inner states of other people.

The new study follows up on results published last year, showing that typically developing individuals blink their eyes in sync with someone talking to them, especially during pauses in speech2.

In the new study, 18 individuals with autism and 18 controls watched a man in a scene from a popular Japanese drama. The researchers found that the controls typically blinked within a quarter to half a second after the actor did. The correlation doesn't hold when everything except the actor's mouth or eyes is obscured, suggesting that people need to integrate information from different facial regions to feel in sync with the speaker.

Individuals with autism struggle with this aspect of face processing, which is often referred to as a deficit in central coherence.

The adults with autism in the study don't synchronize their blinking with the actor's, the researchers found. They also do not blink more during pauses in speech as controls do.

This lack of synchronization could contribute to their difficulty in establishing a rapport with peers, the researchers suggest.

References:

  1. Nakano T. et al. Neuropsychologia 49, 2784-2790 (2011) PubMed

  2. Nakano T. and S. Kitazawa Exp. Brain Res. 205, 577-581 (2010) PubMed

Comments

Name: usethebrainsgodgiveyou
9 August 2011 - 11:50AM

Autistic people center on the mouth. They are more interested in what a person is saying, than in what they are "feeling".

It's unfortunate we look for negative traits and thus construct negative theory. Autistics created the internet, you know.

Name: Jessica Wright
9 August 2011 - 12:52PM

Usethebrainsgodgiveyou -
That is actually a very interesting aspect of this study. Many studies have pointed out that individuals with autism look more at the mouth than at the eyes, but a lot of research has also shown that this is not always the case.

In this particular study the researchers document that the individuals with autism looked at the eyes the same amount as the controls did, showing that this cannot be the explanation for the results.

Name: J.H
11 August 2011 - 6:41PM

It doesn't discount the fact that those with Autism typically focus on the mouth and chin when engaged in social interaction with others.

This study simply proves that a different subgroup of people with Autism do not avoid eye contact but blink less than their neurotypical counterparts when socially interacting with others.

Let's see, what do (many)people who have lower functioning Autism typically do when attempting to social interact ? Total avoidance of face and eyes, head movement in a up and down/side to side (arc like manner), similar to the head movements of the singer Stevie Wonder.

What do (many) people who have low to mild to higher functioning Autism do when attempting to socially interact? Eyes typically focused on the mouth and lips, some sporadic to good eye contact, eye movements are similar to how a deaf person(who is average to good at reading lips) reads mouths.

What do (many) people who have low but usually mild to higher functioning Autism do when attempting to socially interact ? Focused like a laser, absorbing information around them BUT not all the information that neurotypicals would be necessarily be preoccupied with. They make direct eye contact without blinking as much as neurotypicals. It's analogous to a deaf person being an exceptional face/lip reader when socially interacting with others.

I noticed this in (many) people on the spectrum especially those with higher functioning Autism. I see it in high profile people with Autism such as Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison.

Maybe, there are problems with synchronicity in a specific brain region that coordinates sensory modulation.. which in turn cause a person to hyper-focus on a particular part of the face during socialization.

Just Theory......Study the Senses!!!

Name: J.H
11 August 2011 - 7:55PM

should read: Focused like a laser, absorbing information around them BUT not all the information that neurotypicals would necessarily be preoccupied with.

Name: J.H
11 August 2011 - 9:12PM

Should read: Eyes typically focused on the mouth and chin, some sporadic to good eye contact, eye movements are similar to how a deaf person(who is average to good at reading lips) read mouths.

It's been a long day.......

Name: usethebrainsgodgiveyou
16 August 2011 - 9:00PM

Please forgive me...something doesn't seem quite right about the lack of synchronization. I would wonder what behavior is replaced in stead of the eye synchronicity of "normals".

My child was keyed into my feelings...at 4 months I was concerned because he wasn't looking at me,though and told the pediatrician he wasn't bonding. She said, "Look at the way he clings to you. He is bonded." Our communication has a rhythym, which seems to be important to him. Behaviorists are infamous for saying one behavior must be replaced by another with similar rewards to change. What behavior is replacing eye synchronicity?

I wonder if the difference with eye contact was that they were not dealing with a real human, who would be percieved to be more threatening, than an actor on a screen. Real people give off a multitude of clues of their inner feelings, and some autistics are so keyed in as to be overwhelmed.

Temple Grandin said the primary emotion she felt growing up was fear. It is a basic animal instict that disallows a prey animal to look a predator in the eye. Autistics might see others as predators. Not that the NT's are being aggressive on purpose, they just strive to be top dog by nature. I wonder if Autistics are non-competitive by nature. They do seem to have an egalitarian sense, seeing themselves as equals regardless of status.

I haven't made much sense.

Thanks for taking the time to point out the ideas I missed in this study. You are doing a great job.

Name: usethebrainsgodgiveyou
16 August 2011 - 9:12PM

J.H-- I love the comparison to deafness.

When Ben was little, I used to say he was "word deaf".

When Dr. Bernie Rimland was fighting the psychological misrepresentation of autism as an enviromental response to "refrigerator mothers"...he mentioned the similarity of Autisms to Blindisms and Deafisms. Neurological, not environmental. Children do not have cortical blindness because their mothers did not let them look at things, or "keep them in the dark". It makes as much sense.

When we only look at the "what", with no regard for the "why", we continue on in Bettleheims misrepresentations of autism, only now we delegate the inadequacy to the child, in a way.

The "arc" is interesting.. I'm guessing it is an attempt at vestibular stimulation, but not sure why. Maybe it is an attemt to stimulate language centers. I am so unhappy when people take those things people with autism attempt to do as negatives, instead of attempts at regulations of senses.

Thanks, JH..

Name: Jessica Wright
9 September 2011 - 4:57PM

Thank you both for writing with very interesting examples of communication from your personal experience!

I think what both your experiences show is that although these studies attempt to make generalities - with often a fairly small number of participants - every individual with autism is just that, their own individual with their own personality quirks.

Finding common generalities can help researchers understand what basic neurological processes might be different in individuals with the disorder. But scientists can only test for the 'what'.

Only individuals themselves can tell us the 'why'.

Name: Coast Starlight
25 September 2011 - 4:04AM

An important aspect of autism is lack of synchronicity with the social and emotional cues of neurotypicals.

Autistics focusing on faces will focus on the physical details, with nary a thought or feeling about the states of minds of the communicatees. Neurotypicals focusing on faces will miss the physical details, with many thoughts and feelings about the states of minds of the communicatees. In an autistic-neurotypical interaction, the autistic will not process non-verbalized states of mind that exist in the mind of the neurotypical, thereby missing intents and motives where there are some, while neurotypicals will process non-verbalized states of mind that do not exist in the autistic, thereby assigning intents and motives where there are none.

Name: Rachel
3 February 2012 - 4:28AM

Excuse me, Coast Starlight, but I am autistic and I am care deeply about the states of mind of the people who are communicating with me, as do all the other autistic people I know. And may I point out that, in my experience, neurotypical people show a lack of synchronicity with the social and emotional cues of autistics all the time. If neurotypical people were able to read us correctly, they wouldn't make the kinds of pejorative generalizations that you have just made. How dare you assume that an entire group of people simply doesn't care about other human beings? If you said that about any other group, it would be called bigotry. And that's exactly what it is here.

Name: metoo1075
15 October 2013 - 4:15AM

My daughter is almost 18 years old and has all the typical symptoms of low functioning autism but I could not get a proper diagnosis because I was told she was too affection and made too frequent eye contact. Is that correct?

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