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author:("nepeta, Leigh")
1.  Abnormal social reward processing in autism as indexed by pupillary responses to happy faces 
Background
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) typically show impaired eye contact during social interactions. From a young age, they look less at faces than typically developing (TD) children and tend to avoid direct gaze. However, the reason for this behavior remains controversial; ASD children might avoid eye contact because they perceive the eyes as aversive or because they do not find social engagement through mutual gaze rewarding.
Methods
We monitored pupillary diameter as a measure of autonomic response in children with ASD (n = 20, mean age = 12.4) and TD controls (n = 18, mean age = 13.7) while they looked at faces displaying different emotions. Each face displayed happy, fearful, angry or neutral emotions with the gaze either directed to or averted from the subjects.
Results
Overall, children with ASD and TD controls showed similar pupillary responses; however, they differed significantly in their sensitivity to gaze direction for happy faces. Specifically, pupillary diameter increased among TD children when viewing happy faces with direct gaze as compared to those with averted gaze, whereas children with ASD did not show such sensitivity to gaze direction. We found no group differences in fixation that could explain the differential pupillary responses. There was no effect of gaze direction on pupil diameter for negative affect or neutral faces among either the TD or ASD group.
Conclusions
We interpret the increased pupillary diameter to happy faces with direct gaze in TD children to reflect the intrinsic reward value of a smiling face looking directly at an individual. The lack of this effect in children with ASD is consistent with the hypothesis that individuals with ASD may have reduced sensitivity to the reward value of social stimuli.
doi:10.1186/1866-1955-4-17
PMCID: PMC3461481  PMID: 22958650
Autism; Pupillary response; Reward processing
2.  Neural bases of gaze and emotion processing in children with autism spectrum disorders 
Brain and Behavior  2011;1(1):1-11.
Abnormal eye contact is a core symptom of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), though little is understood of the neural bases of gaze processing in ASD. Competing hypotheses suggest that individuals with ASD avoid eye contact due to the anxiety-provoking nature of direct eye gaze or that eye-gaze cues hold less interest or significance to children with ASD. The current study examined the effects of gaze direction on neural processing of emotional faces in typically developing (TD) children and those with ASD. While undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 16 high-functioning children and adolescents with ASD and 16 TD controls viewed a series of faces depicting emotional expressions with either direct or averted gaze. Children in both groups showed significant activity in visual-processing regions for both direct and averted gaze trials. However, there was a significant group by gaze interaction such that only TD children showed reliably greater activity in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex for direct versus averted gaze. The ASD group showed no difference between direct and averted gaze in response to faces conveying negative emotions. These results highlight the key role of eye gaze in signaling communicative intent and suggest altered processing of the emotional significance of direct gaze in children with ASD.
doi:10.1002/brb3.6
PMCID: PMC3217668  PMID: 22398976
Autism; facial expression; functional magnetic resonance imaging; gaze; developmental neuroimaging
3.  Early Childhood Predictors of the Social Competence of Adults with Autism 
Longitudinal research into adult outcomes in autism remains limited. Unlike previous longitudinal examinations of adult outcome in autism, the twenty participants in this study were evaluated across multiple assessments between early childhood (M = 3.9 years) and adulthood (M = 26.6 years). In early childhood, responsiveness to joint attention (RJA), language, and intelligence were assessed. In adulthood, the parents of participants responded to interviews assessing the adaptive functioning, autistic symptomology and global functioning of their children. RJA and early childhood language predicted a composite measure of adult social functioning and independence. Early childhood language skills and intelligence predicted adult adaptive behaviors. RJA predicted adult non-verbal communication, social skills and symptoms. Adaptive behaviors changed with development, but symptoms of autism did not. Additional factors associated with adult outcomes are discussed.
doi:10.1007/s10803-011-1222-0
PMCID: PMC3265725  PMID: 22187106
Autism; Longitudinal; Outcome; Adulthood; Social functioning

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