When autistic and non-autistic people look at photographs depicting social scenes, they generally look at faces first and then let their eyes wander to other parts of the image. After a few seconds, neurotypical adults are likely to return their gaze to the faces, but autistic people are not, according to a new eye-tracking study1.

The findings may help explain why people with autism tend to spend less time overall looking at faces than non-autistic people do: It’s not that they are uninterested in faces, but that social stimuli may not capture their attention in the same way.

Previous studies have examined how certain factors, such as a person’s ability to learn from or process different stimuli, affect social attention in autism, but few have evaluated how ‘looking patterns’ change over the course of an experiment or with age.

“This study goes a long way towards us having some insight into that process,” says Rebecca Shaffer, associate professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio, who was not involved in the study.

Based on their eye movements, neurotypical people seem to grow more interested in faces as they age, but autistic people do not, the researchers found. And the autistic people who had the most distinct pattern of eye movements also had the poorest communication skills.

The results show that “there is information to be gained” by analyzing eye-tracking data in this way, says lead investigator Emily Jones, professor of translational neurodevelopment at Birkbeck, University of London in the United Kingdom.