Maartje C. de Jong - Autism

This research project was honored with the Talma-Eijkman Award 2008

M.C. de Jong, H. van Engeland, C. Kemner. The attentional effect of gaze shifts is influenced by emotion and spatial frequency, but not in autism. Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry (2008), 47:443-454.

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Objective: Impaired gaze following is an important hallmark of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in clinical settings. Yet, ASD subjects perform normally on laboratory tasks involving gaze shifts. We investigated this contradiction, hypothesizing that impaired gaze following in ASD is not related to basic impairments in attentional orienting but to impaired emotion perception and abnormal processing of spatial frequencies (i.e. local and global information).
Method: We tested 30 high-functioning, school-aged children with ASD and 30 age- and IQ-matched controls on a task involving gaze shifts that cue the location of targets. The cueing faces differed in emotionality and were filtered for different spatial frequencies. We recorded behavioral responses (reaction times) and brain responses (event-related potentials, i.e. ERPs).
Results: ASD subjects performed normally when neutral faces were used. However, emotional faces elicited modified face and gaze cue processing in control subjects, but not in the ASD subjects. Furthermore, the control group biased toward the use of low spatial frequencies (global information) to process gaze cues, while the ASD group biased toward the use of high spatial frequencies (local information).
Conclusions: We conclude that impaired gaze following in ASD is related to impaired emotion processing. Moreover, ASD subjects show an abnormal reliance on local information to process gaze cues.

An emotional gaze cue: Gaze cues reflexively direct attention to the gazed at location.
In typically developed observers this attentional effect is larger for emotional gaze cues (like the one on the right below) than for neutral gaze cues. In autistic observers the attentional effect is the same for emotional and neutral gaze cues.