The “Eye Avoidance” Hypothesis of Autism Face Processing
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- Tanaka, J.W. & Sung, A. J Autism Dev Disord (2016) 46: 1538. doi:10.1007/s10803-013-1976-7
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Although a growing body of research indicates that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit selective deficits in their ability to recognize facial identities and expressions, the source of their face impairment is, as yet, undetermined. In this paper, we consider three possible accounts of the autism face deficit: (1) the holistic hypothesis, (2) the local perceptual bias hypothesis and (3) the eye avoidance hypothesis. A review of the literature indicates that contrary to the holistic hypothesis, there is little evidence to suggest that individuals with autism do perceive faces holistically. The local perceptual bias account also fails to explain the selective advantage that ASD individuals demonstrate for objects and their selective disadvantage for faces. The eye avoidance hypothesis provides a plausible explanation of face recognition deficits where individuals with ASD avoid the eye region because it is perceived as socially threatening. Direct eye contact elicits a increased physiological response as indicated by heightened skin conductance and amygdala activity. For individuals with autism, avoiding the eyes is an adaptive strategy, however, this approach interferes with the ability to process facial cues of identity, expressions and intentions, exacerbating the social challenges for persons with ASD.