Alexithymia explains atypical spatiotemporal dynamics of eye gaze in autism.
Cuve HC., Castiello S., Shiferaw B., Ichijo E., Catmur C., Bird G.
Recognition of emotional facial expressions is considered to be atypical in autism. This difficulty is thought to be due to the way that facial expressions are visually explored. Evidence for atypical visual exploration of emotional faces in autism is, however, equivocal. We propose that, where observed, atypical visual exploration of emotional facial expressions is due to alexithymia, a distinct but frequently co-occurring condition. In this eye-tracking study we tested the alexithymia hypothesis using a number of recent methodological advances to study eye gaze during several emotion processing tasks (emotion recognition, intensity judgements, free gaze), in 25 adults with, and 45 without, autism. A multilevel polynomial modelling strategy was used to describe the spatiotemporal dynamics of eye gaze to emotional facial expressions. Converging evidence from traditional and novel analysis methods revealed that atypical gaze to the eyes is best predicted by alexithymia in both autistic and non-autistic individuals. Information theoretic analyses also revealed differential effects of task on gaze patterns as a function of alexithymia, but not autism. These findings highlight factors underlying atypical emotion processing in autistic individuals, with wide-ranging implications for emotion research.