Gaze cues in complex, real-world scenes direct the attention of high-functioning adults with autism


Autism is characterized by atypical use of social communicative cues, such as another person’s gaze or point. Despite these real-world difficulties, experimental manipulations often reveal minimal group differences. One factor that may contribute to this failure to find differences is the use of oversimplified and decontextualized social stimuli to examine these behaviors (e.g., a solo floating face). In the current study, we examined whether typical individuals and those with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder would use subtle gaze cues embedded in a natural, real-world scene to aid them in a change detection task using flicker presentation. Each scene contained three changes, and in some pictures, one of those changes was in the direction of gaze of the people in the scene. Even though neither group was aware that gaze cues aided in identification of the change, both groups showed a robust effect of gaze cues in change detection, such that changes in the line of gaze were detected first in a scene more often than those not in the line of gaze. These data illustrate typical use of gaze cues in high-functioning adults with ASD even in the context of a complex, naturalistic scene. Our findings suggest that attention to gaze cues may not be at the root of difficulties with joint attention in adults with autism

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