Autoimmune Thyroid Disease

An Unfortunate and Lengthy Adventure in Misdiagnosis

Eye contact in autistics

with 3 comments

Brain tests at UW-Madison suggest that autistic children shy from eye contact because they perceive even the most familiar face as an uncomfortable threat. […]

Tracking the correlation between eye movements and brain activity, the researchers found that in autistic subjects, the amygdala — an emotion center in the brain associated with negative feelings — lights up to an abnormal extent during a direct gaze upon a non-threatening face. Writing in the March 6 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, the scientists also report that because autistic children avert eye contact, the brain’s fusiform region, which is critical for face perception, is less active than it would be during a normally developing child’s stare. […]

Notably, the UW-Madison study overturns the existing notion that autistic children struggle to process faces because of a malfunction in the fusiform area. Rather, in autistic children the fusiform “is fundamentally normal” and shows only stunted activity because over-aroused amygdalas make autistic children want to look away, says senior author Richard Davidson, a UW-Madison psychiatry and psychology professor who has earned international recognition for his work on the neural underpinnings of emotion.

“Imagine walking through the world and interpreting every face that looks at you as a threat, even the face of your own mother,” Davidson adds. Scientists have in the past speculated that the amygdala – which has been implicated in certain anxiety and mood disorders – plays a role in autism, but the study directly supports that idea for the first time. Eye contact triggers threat signals in autistic children’s brains

I’m totally freaked out by the picture of the man’s face on this page by the way.

It appears to be glutamate receptors in the amygdala that govern fear response, something that ties in with the suspicion of abnormal glutamate function in autism and asperger’s.

I have had a serious, socially disabling inability to make eye contact for most of my life. I only became self-conscious of this during my teens and it was something that really frustrated me and I tried very hard to correct it. Although all I wanted to do was stare at the floor when people talked to me, I would wrestle with myself to try to behave normally and make eye contact. What I felt when I made direct eye contact with people was fear, almost pain. The level of fear ranged from intimidation up to actual stabs of terror. Most often when I had to speak to strangers I would physically tremble.

People find it rude when you don’t look at them when they are talking to you, and I was told off many times for not making eye contact – people assumed that I wasn’t paying attention. The coping mechanism I developed was to repeatedly make eye contact very briefly before looking away again, and to try to appear to be concentrating on what was said to me when I looked away with a ‘concentration frown’ expression. Apparently I wasn’t very good at this expression because people often asked me “what’s wrong?” – misinterpreting what I was trying to express as worry or anxiety. This trait of mine was interpreted as shyness by my family. Asperger’s wasn’t even recognised until 1994.

I’ve chipped away at this fear over the years. It was only in my mid to late twenties that I began to make real headway. I still find it very difficult to look people in the eye for more than a couple of seconds, and often I can only do this by unfocused my eyes and looking through them, smiling and creasing up my eyes in the hopes that this disguises my unfocused gaze. The only people I can genuinely look in the eye for more than a couple of seconds are my partner and my sister.


Written by alienrobotgirl

30 August, 2007 at 4:37 pm

Posted in Autism

3 Responses

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  1. Very interesting – well all your posts are so valuble but I couldn’t possibly comment on them all:).I have had severe eye contact problems during some of my most intense glutamate reactions – where it is almost like pain. I’ve also lost speech or become incomprehensively slurred on a couple of these attacks combined with intense fear and panic/dialated pupils. Are these known as the meltdowns aspie’s keep talking about?


    30 August, 2007 at 6:03 pm

  2. What you’re describing I think would get diagnosed as a panic attack by a doctor. But I think you’re right.People use ‘meltdown’ to describe auties and aspies having temper tantrums and screaming/crying, and ‘shutdown’ when they go into themselves and ball up, rock, or bury themselves under blankets/cushions (lol guess I’m a shutdown person!).I think they’re all part of the same thing – sensory overload, fear, adrenaline release, and the behaviour you see is the coping mechanism.I’ve had those exact symptoms by the way. The worst times I remember were clearly associated with MSG.

    Alien Robot Girl

    31 August, 2007 at 3:39 pm

  3. […] flirting with them, or think I’m completely crazy. I described in a previous post how the fear response in the amygdala is goverened by glutamate receptors. Autistics are thought to have brains bristling with glutamate receptors. This is a really good […]

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