Why Those with Autism Often Avoid Direct Eye Contact; MGH Findings Suggest Slow Habituation to Eye Contact May Help Overcome Excitatory Overreaction and Cascading Effects That This Eye-Avoidance May Have on Development of the Social Brain

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find it difficult to look others in the eyes. This avoidance has typically been interpreted as a sign of social and personal indifference, but reports from people with autism suggest otherwise. Many say that looking others in the eye is uncomfortable or stressful for them - some will even say that "it burns" - all of which points to a neurological cause. Now, a team of investigators based at the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital has shed light on the brain mechanisms involved in this behavior. They reported their findings in a Scientific Reports paper published online on June 9, 2017. The open-access article is titled “Look Me in the Eyes: Constraining Gaze in the Eye-Region Provokes Abnormally High Subcortical Activation in Autism.” "The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern," says Nouchine Hadjikhani, MD, PhD, Director of Neurolimbic Research in the Martinos Center and corresponding author of the new study. "Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain."
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