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Effects Of Being Watched On Eye Gaze And Facial Displays Of Typical And Autistic Individuals During Conversation

Roser Cañigueral, Jamie A Ward, Antonia F de C Hamilton

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Communication with others relies on coordinated exchanges of social signals, such as eye gaze and facial displays. However, this can only happen when partners are able to see each other. Although previous studies report that autistic individuals have difficulties in planning eye gaze and making facial displays during conversation, evidence from real-life dyadic tasks is scarce and mixed. Across two studies, here we investigate how eye gaze and facial displays of typical and high-functioning autistic individuals are modulated by the belief in being seen and potential to show true gaze direction. Participants were recorded with an eye-tracking and video-camera system while they completed a structured Q&A task with a confederate under three social contexts: pre-recorded video, video-call and face-to-face. Typical participants gazed less to the confederate and produced more facial displays when they were being watched and when they were speaking. Contrary to our hypotheses, eye gaze and facial motion patterns in autistic participants were overall similar to the typical group. This suggests that high-functioning autistic participants are able to use eye gaze and facial displays as social signals. Future studies will need to investigate to what extent this reflects spontaneous behaviour or the use of compensation strategies. Lay abstract When we are communicating with other people, we exchange a variety of social signals through eye gaze and facial expressions. However, coordinated exchanges of these social signals can only happen when people involved in the interaction are able to see each other. Although previous studies report that autistic individuals have difficulties in using eye gaze and facial expressions during social interactions, evidence from tasks that involve real face-to-face conversations is scarce and mixed. Here, we investigate how eye gaze and facial expressions of typical and high-functioning autistic individuals are modulated by the belief in being seen by another person, and by being in a face-to-face interaction. Participants were recorded with an eye-tracking and video-camera system while they completed a structured Q&A task with a confederate under three social contexts: pre-recorded video (no belief in being seen, no face-to-face), video-call (belief in being seen, no face-to-face) and face-to-face (belief in being seen and face-to-face). Typical participants gazed less to the confederate and made more facial expressions when they were being watched and when they were speaking. Contrary to our hypotheses, eye gaze and facial expression patterns in autistic participants were overall similar to the typical group. This suggests that high-functioning autistic participants are able to use eye gaze and facial expressions as social signals. Future studies will need to investigate to what extent this reflects spontaneous behaviour or the use of compensation strategies.