Social partner gaze direction and conversational phase; factors affecting social attention during face-to-face conversations in autistic adults?

Autism. 2018 Feb 01;:1362361318756786

Authors: Freeth M, Bugembe P

Social attention is atypical in autism. However, the majority of evidence for this claim comes from studies where the social partner is not physically present and the participants are children. Consequently, to ensure acquisition of a comprehensive overview of social attention in autism, systematic analysis of factors known to influence face-to-face social attention in neurotypicals is necessary and evidence from adulthood is required. This study assessed the influence of experimenter gaze direction (direct or averted) and conversational phase (speaking or listening) on social attention during a face-to-face conversation. Eye-tracking analyses indicated that when the experimenter looked directly at the participant, autistic adults looked at the experimenter’s face less than did neurotypical adults. However, this between-group difference was significantly reduced when the experimenter’s gaze was averted. Therefore, opportunities for reciprocal social gaze are missed by autistic adults when the social partner makes direct eye contact. A greater proportion of time was spent fixating the experimenter’s eye region when participants were speaking compared to listening in both neurotypical and autistic adults. Overall, this study provides a rich picture of the nature of social attention in face-to-face conversations adopted by autistic adults and demonstrates individual variation in social attention styles.

PMID: 29430944 [PubMed – as supplied by publisher]

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