In our everyday life, the ability to perceive the occurrence and duration of brief mutual gaze interactions provides us with essential social cues. The human eye, with its great prominence of a white sclera against a dark pupil, seems to be optimally designed for this function, the importance of which is underlined by the existence of dedicated brain mechanisms that are tuned to the direction of other's gaze. Individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been reported to struggle with tasks based on gaze information and, in particular, with the detection and interpretation of gaze direction. However, their ability to estimate gaze duration has not been studied yet. In this project, we aim to conduct a systematic behavioural and electrophysiological investigation of the temporal aspects of gaze interactions in ASD and neurotypical participants. We intend to measure duration discrimination for brief intervals containing gaze stimuli, and, simultaneously, record eye-movements and event-related potentials (ERPs). The analysis of these data will allow us to test the existence of a predictive relationship between the autistic traits and changes in gaze time perception and to decode perceived duration from ERP recordings using multivariate pattern analysis.
Our ability to estimate the duration of brief gaze exchanges becomes central in many social interactions. For instance, when a young man catches a girl’s eye at a party, the duration of eye contact signals mutual interest. Changes in the context, in the involved actors, or in gaze duration, though, could convey a different social meaning (threat, for example). Individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulties in exploring a face and appropriately reciprocating eye contacts. While their impaired performance in judging gaze direction has been extensively reported upon, the study of how they perceive gaze duration has not been approached yet. Here, we aim to investigate the temporal aspects of gaze interactions in ASD and neurotypical participants. Analyzing their gaze duration estimates and exploring their brain correlates might lead to a new theoretical framework for the study and treatment of this and other conditions involving impaired social interactions.