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Autism: The gaze that hinders expression

It is not enough to observe what abilities are altered in autistic subjects, we also need to understand how each function interacts with the others. In fact, whereas in normal subjects joint attention appears to facilitate facial mimicry (both are skills relevant for human social interaction), the opposite holds true for autistic subjects. That is what a new study, just published in Autism Research, suggests.

Empathy – the ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions – has many components, some sophisticated and involving complex thought processes, others basic but essential nonetheless. The latter include joint attention – which is activated by direct eye contact between two or more individuals, and allows them to focus their attention on the same object; and facial mimicry – the tendency to reproduce on one’s own face the expressions of emotion seen in others. Subjects suffering from autism have difficulty with both these abilities, but according to a new study just published in Autism Research, it is also important to study how these two functions interact.

“Empathy is an essential human trait in social relations”, explains Sebastian Korb, a researcher at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste and one of the study authors. “According to embodied cognition theories, to better understand the facial expression of the person in front of us we reproduce the same expression on our face”. This does not necessarily mean that if we see someone smiling we smile as well, even though this does happen sometimes. More often, however, the facial muscles involved in smiling are indeed activated, but so subtly that the movement is invisible to the naked eye.

Avatars similar to those used in the experiment
Avatars similar to those used in the experiment
Credits: Sebastian Korb