Eye contact avoidance in people on the autism spectrum is commonly thought to be an artifact of poor social skills, but new research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York has found that autistic people may avoid eye contact because of the way their brains process visual stimuli. Researchers observed that, in children with autism, the cortex showed more activity when objects were placed at the periphery of their field of vision than it did when objects were placed in the center.

John Foxe, a researcher involved in the study commented that when someone notices an autistic person avoiding eye contact, “we are very much inclined to interpret this as a social deficit, but it may be a much more fundamental issue.” That issue is related to an inability in young children with autism to control their eye muscles.

The study considered 22 children with autism and 31 neurotypical children. The research team used electrodes to measure the children’s brain activity while they flashed a checkerboard pattern on a screen in front of the participants. The goal of the experiment was to determine how much of the cortex’s area was used for processing the checkerboard’s location.

In neurotypical people, a larger section of the cortex is dedicated to processing information at the center of the field of vision, rather than the periphery. However, children with autism spectrum disorders showed more cortical activity when viewing images in their peripheral vision, the opposite of what might be expected.

The cortical “map,” including allotted spaces for visual processing, typically develops during childhood. It seems that when this section of the cortex develops in people with autism, more neurons become devoted to peripheral information. This finding may be linked to problems with motor skills that many people with autism exhibit because the cortex does not become mapped in the typical way.

The research team has indicated that future research should involve children as young as age three or four (the youngest children in this study were seven years old).

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