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Autistic Toddlers Easily Study Photos of Faces

Finding is surprising, since most will avoid real-life eye contact

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THURSDAY, May 3, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Even though it's often difficult for toddlers with autism spectrum disorders to make eye contact or to focus on people's faces, they have little trouble looking at photographs of faces, U.S. researchers report.

A team from the Yale University School of Medicine also found that toddlers with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) spent most of the time examining the eyes of people in photographs.

"This is a surprising finding, given that avoiding eye contact is one of the classic hallmarks of autism," Katarzyna Chawarska, an assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, said in a prepared statement.

"The results are preliminary and will require further replication and extension, but they suggest that pictures of faces and eyes are, by themselves, neither inherently unattractive nor inherently adverse to toddlers with ASD," she said.

"Therefore, the limited attention to faces and eyes observed in natural settings may be due to the fact that faces don't stand out to them as much as other objects in the environment," Chawarska said. "There also may be heightened arousal related to the complex social and perceptual context in which faces usually occur."

The researchers used an eye-tracking system to collect information on the toddlers' visual scanning patterns and their recognition of faces and abstract patterns.

The study was expected to be presented this week at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Seattle.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more about autism spectrum disorders.

SOURCE: Yale University, news release, May 3, 2007


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