Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 46, Issue 5, pp 1538–1552 | Cite as

The “Eye Avoidance” Hypothesis of Autism Face Processing

Perception In Autism


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.


Face recognition Eye gaze Face perception Expression perception 



This research was supported by grants from the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (NSF Grant #SBE-0542013), National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH Grant R01HD046526), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Strategic Training Initiative in Health Research (STIHR).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada
  2. 2.Department of Special Education and Leadership StudiesUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada

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