Royal Society Publishing

Does the perception of moving eyes trigger reflexive visual orienting in autism?

John Swettenham , Samantha Condie , Ruth Campbell , Elizabeth Milne , Mike Coleman


Does movement of the eyes in one or another direction function as an automatic attentional cue to a location of interest? Two experiments explored the directional movement of the eyes in a full face for speed of detection of an aftercoming location target in young people with autism and in control participants. Our aim was to investigate whether a low–level perceptual impairment underlies the delay in gaze following characteristic of autism. The participants' task was to detect a target appearing on the left or right of the screen either 100 ms or 800 ms after a face cue appeared with eyes averting to the left or right. Despite instructions to ignore eye–movement in the face cue, people with autism and control adolescents were quicker to detect targets that had been preceded by an eye movement cue congruent with target location compared with targets preceded by an incongruent eye movement cue. The attention shifts are thought to be reflexive because the cue was to be ignored, and because the effect was found even when cue–target duration was short (100 ms). Because (experiment two) the effect persisted even when the face was inverted, it would seem that the direction of movement of eyes can provide a powerful (involuntary) cue to a location.

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