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Absence of Preferential Unconscious Processing of Eye Contact in Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Authors

  • Hironori Akechi,

    Corresponding author
    1. Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), Tokyo, Japan
    2. Division of Information System Design, Tokyo Denki University, Saitama, Japan
    Current affiliation:
    1. JSPS, Tokyo, Japan
    2. School of Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland
    • Address for correspondence and reprints: Hironori Akechi, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, 33014 University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland. E-mail: akechi@cogn.jp

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  • Timo Stein,

    1. Center for Mind/Brain Sciences (CIMeC), University of Trento, Trento, Italy
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  • Atsushi Senju,

    1. Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck University of London, London, UK
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  • Yukiko Kikuchi,

    1. Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), Tokyo, Japan
    2. College of Education, Ibaraki University, Ibaraki, Japan
    Current affiliation:
    1. Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Science, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan
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  • Yoshikuni Tojo,

    1. College of Education, Ibaraki University, Ibaraki, Japan
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  • Hiroo Osanai,

    1. Musashino Higashi Center for Education and Research, Musashino Higashi Gakuen, Tokyo, Japan
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  • Toshikazu Hasegawa

    1. Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Science, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan
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  • Conflict of interest: The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.
  • Grant sponsors: Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS): Grant-in-Aid for JSPS Fellows #2310946 (H.A.) and #2310196 (Y.K.), JSPS: Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B) #24330207 (T.H.), UK Medical Research Council Career Development Award (G) #1100252 (A.S.), and Center for Evolutionary Cognitive Sciences at University of Tokyo.

Abstract

Eye contact plays an essential role in social interaction. Atypical eye contact is a diagnostic and widely reported feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Here, we determined whether altered unconscious visual processing of eye contact might underlie atypical eye contact in ASD. Using continuous flash suppression (CFS), we found that typically developing (TD) adolescents detected faces with a direct gaze faster than faces with an averted gaze, indicating enhanced unconscious processing of eye contact. Critically, adolescents with ASD did not show different durations of perceptual suppression for faces with direct and averted gaze, suggesting that preferential unconscious processing of eye contact is absent in this group. In contrast, in a non-CFS control experiment, both adolescents with ASD and TD adolescents detected faces with a direct gaze faster than those with an averted gaze. Another CFS experiment confirmed that unconscious processing of non-social stimuli is intact for adolescents with ASD. These results suggest that atypical processing of eye contact in individuals with ASD could be related to a weaker initial, unconscious registration of eye contact. Autism Res 2014, 7: 590–597. © 2014 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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