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Look at me when I'm talking to you

By Mark Viney


Look at me when I’m talking to you! How many times were you told that as a child? Actually it’s very good advice, because the non-verbal gestures we see help us understand what someone is saying to us.

Dr Debbie Riby of Durham University – speaking today at the British Science Festival – has been studying the gaze of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and comparing it with that of more typically developing children. Children with autism avert their gaze for longer when to listening to people, suggesting that they are getting less non-verbal information from a conversation.

Knowing that children with an ASD look away more when listening might have implications for teaching. As Dr Riby said “gaze training interventions that teach pupils with autism appropriate gaze strategies could be provided to ensure that children struggling with social interactions receive appropriate support”.

However, there are still times when it’s good for us to avert our gaze, because we think better when we’re not looking at people. Imagine you’re trying to do a sum, or struggling to remember a phone number – it’s much easier to think these things through if you look away or close your eyes.

Researchers have tested whether this is true by asking children to do a maths sum while keeping eye contact. When they were holding someone’s gaze, the children’s answers were approximately 15% less accurate, compared to when they were allowed to look away while calculating. Looking at someone gives us extra information, but this can be distracting when we’re trying to think.

It turns out that this is true of all children, not just those with an ASD. Ribi and colleagues compared typically developing children as well as children with autism and children with Williams’ syndrome – a neuro-developmental disorder where children are hyper social. The gaze patterns of all the children were the same when it came to thinking; they all tend to avert their gaze when concentrating. This could be useful information for teachers: it’s important for them to understand that all children might use gaze aversion while thinking to help them to concentrate better.

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