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Background: Scanning faces is important for social interactions. Difficulty with the social use of eye contact constitutes one of the clinical symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It has been suggested that individuals with ASD look less at the eyes and more at the mouth than typically developing (TD) individuals, possibly due to gaze aversion or gaze indifference. However, eye-tracking evidence for this hypothesis is mixed. While gaze patterns convey information about overt orienting processes, it is unclear how this is manifested at the neural level and how relative covert attention to the eyes and mouth of faces might be affected in ASD. Methods: We used frequency-tagging EEG in combination with eye tracking, while participants watched fast flickering faces for 1-min stimulation sequences. The upper and lower halves of the faces were presented at 6 Hz and 7.5 Hz or vice versa in different stimulation sequences, allowing to objectively disentangle the neural saliency of the eyes versus mouth region of a perceived face. We tested 21 boys with ASD (8–12 years old) and 21 TD control boys, matched for age and IQ. Results: Both groups looked longer at the eyes than the mouth, without any group difference in relative fixation duration to these features. TD boys looked significantly more to the nose, while the ASD boys looked more outside the face. EEG neural saliency data partly followed this pattern: neural responses to the upper or lower face half were not different between groups, but in the TD group, neural responses to the lower face halves were larger than responses to the upper part. Face exploration dynamics showed that TD individuals mostly maintained fixations within the same facial region, whereas individuals with ASD switched more often between the face parts. Limitations: Replication in large and independent samples may be needed to validate exploratory results. Conclusions: Combined eye-tracking and frequency-tagged neural responses show no support for the excess mouth/diminished eye gaze hypothesis in ASD. The more exploratory face scanning style observed in ASD might be related to their increased feature-based face processing style.
Vettori, S., Van der Donck, S., Nys, J., Moors, P., Van Wesemael, T., Steyaert, J., … Boets, B. (2020). Combined frequency-tagging EEG and eye-tracking measures provide no support for the “excess mouth/diminished eye attention” hypothesis in autism. Molecular Autism, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-020-00396-5