Encouraging Eye Contact May Disturb Autistic Kids' Thinking
Credit: Looking away photo via Shutterstock

Children with autism look away from faces when thinking, especially about a challenging problem — just as people without the condition do, according to a recent study.

Avoiding eye contact is a common behavior of people with autism, and children with the condition are sometimes trained and encouraged to meet other's gazes.

But the new findings show that looking away sometimes serves a purpose, and encouraging eye contact can interfere with a child's thoughts.

“Although social skills training is important in encouraging eye contact with children with autism," the new study shows that gaze aversion is helpful in concentrating on difficult tasks, said study researcher Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, an associate dean at Northumbria University in England.

"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," Doherty-Sneddon said.

The findings are published in the April issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and were first posted online in Oct. 26.

The study included 20 children with autism and 18 with William’s Syndrome, a rare, genetic condition that typically causes learning disabilities and a distinct, highly social, overly friendly personality. The researchers asked the children carry out mental arithmetic tests.

They found that both groups of children engaged in gaze aversion while thinking, and increased their gaze aversion as question difficulty increased.

The study showed that autistic children follow the same patterns as other children when processing complex information or difficult tasks, the researchers said. Children without autism and adults look away when asked difficult questions, and gaze aversion has been proven in the past to improve the accuracy of responses.

When trying to retrieve information from memory, or solve a complex problem, looking at someone’s face can interfere with the way the brain processes information relative to the task. This is, in part, because faces are such rich sources of information that capture our attention, according to the study.

Pass it on: Children with autism who look away might, in some cases, be thinking hard or trying to solve a problem.

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