The Effect of Mutual Gaze on Human Perception in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Typically Developing Controls

Principal Investigator(s):
Allie Khalulyan
Grant Type:
Graduate Research
University of Southern California
Irvine, California
Year Awarded:
Cognition and Executive Function; Social and Communication Skills


How does eye contact play a role in young children’s notion of social interaction? Research shows that typically-developing children under the age of five years often negate seeing others in the absence of eye contact (e.g., Moll & Khalulyan, 2016). Children’s negations seem to reflect a mutualistic or reciprocal notion of person-to-person relation: i.e., “I can only see you if you see me too (and vice versa).” After around their fifth birthday, children begin to adopt a more objective perspective and affirm seeing others in the absence of eye contact. What is unknown is how children with autism conceptualize seeing behavior – specifically, how do they respond to questions about seeing other people? To test this, we will ask participants whether they can see humans whose eyes are covered. In an analogous control task, we will ask participants whether they can see objects that have a salient part (e.g., windows of a house) covered. Given core deficits in eye contact and reciprocal social interaction, we predict that children with autism will affirm seeing others in the absence of eye contact. If young children with autism do not perceptually distinguish between humans and objects, this will have significant implications for interventions targeting social gaze and interpersonal awareness. Both clinicians and parents alike are encouraged to administer our proposed ‘mutual gaze’ task (i.e., parent can cover eyes and ask child, “Can you see me right now?”) as a quick and non-invasive test of social attention. This mutual gaze task can also measure the success of early therapies that are designed to strengthen social reciprocity in children with autism. Lastly, we suggest that pediatricians and parents administer this task to younger siblings of children with autism as a new way of tracking early deficits in social-cognition.

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