A baby makes eye contact with a passing stranger and his social development begins. Unable to resist the infant’s smile, the stranger smiles back and the baby starts to learn about human emotion through facial expression. But some babies, especially those on the autism spectrum, don’t make eye contact. What compels these tiny humans to avoid the eyes of people around them? Scientists specializing in developmental disabilities say the flocculus, a brain region in the cerebellum integral to eye movement control, may play a role in atypical gaze.
In their study of the postmortem brains of 12 autistic subjects and 10 control subjects, the research team, led by Dr. Jerzy Wegiel of the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, in Staten Island, saw abnormally large flocculi in eight autistic subjects. According to the study, published last month in Brain Research, seven of these subjects exhibited “poor, very poor, or no eye contact” during the course of their lives.