Suzana Herculano-Houzel


One of the common core traits of autism is atypical gaze direction during social interactions. In some, it is the looking away from the other person’s eyes during conversation. In others, it is quite the opposite: a fixed, sustained stare at the person’s eyes.

Personally, I identify as the latter. I am fascinated by people, for starters because they confuse me. I study them as they speak, at the same time as I am equally enthralled by the details in their eyes or eyebrows that I pick up as I talk to them. As I was marrying my husband, himself an Aspie, the officiant invited us to hold hands and look into each other’s eyes, so that moment could become so engraved in our brains that we could remember it forever (he actually said that). We happily obliged all through the beautiful, moving ceremony, and I remember focusing on different details of his gorgeous, imposing, kingly face all the while I felt his hands around mine and stared deeply into his eyes – and wondered how many normal people would be able to do that, sustain a stare and being stared at for so long without finding it weird or breaking eye contact.

When it’s not my husband that I am looking at, I try to make a conscious effort to look away from people’s eyes, lest I make them uncomfortable. I guess that is where some of my “intensity” comes from: I stare at people when I talk to them. I find it natural. They don’t.

Anyway. That is quite different from when people talk to us Aspies: it is a well documented fact that we Aspies tend to look at people’s mouths while they speak, whether in real life or in movies.

The thing about Aspies preferring to look at mouths as these speak to them (whether intentionally or not; that is what our behavior shows) even in movies is that there is nothing social about the experience of a movie. Looking away from the eyes of the person who talks directly to you can be construed as a social impairment, yes; but then, why would Aspies look not at the eyes, and rather at the mouth, of people speaking to a camera, or, even worse, just speaking to each other in a movie?

Because looking away from the eyes and toward the mouth is not about avoiding social interaction, but rather about collecting more information to help us Aspies parse the super complex auditory signals from speech that get especially jumbled together in our brains – I think.

The part about speech sounds getting jumbled together in the brains of Aspies is a fact, demonstrated by my colleague Mark Wallace’s team at Vanderbilt University. They found that Aspies integrate speech sounds over a much broader window of time. Neurotypicals hear soundbites of a tiny fraction of a second, so it is fairly straightforward to separate the consonants in speech and parse speech sounds into syllables and discernible words. But Aspies integrate sounds over almost half a second: everything that is heard in a half second gets jumbled together, and the brain has to put in extra effort to separate those sounds into meaningful words. Separating sounds gets especially difficult if there are other sensory cues competing for attention, like plenty else to see in the eyes and expression of the person talking to you (which, incidentally, explains why I do just fine listening to podcasts and audiobooks, when there is nothing else getting in the way of processing the sound alone).

But there is SO much extra information to be gained from the mouth of the person talking to you. Unsurprisingly, the shapes made by the mouth are very telling of the sounds that it makes, so the sight of those movements literally shapes how its sounds are perceived in the brain. That’s multisensory integration, Mark’s special research interest – and the fact that sensory processing is highly distinctive in autism makes his lab a magnet for young autistic researchers.

But I digress. The point is: when the going gets rough and parsing the sounds of speech proves to be a slow and confusing process, it is only natural that the eyes start wondering around in search of any helpful, additional information – and find themselves a solid anchor in the movements of the mouth.

So yes, Aspies often find ourselves staring at the mouths of the actors on screen – which, given how poor vision actually is for everything else that is not the exact focus of your gaze, certainly makes us miss out on other facial cues that express not words, but emotions.

Or else, give us subtitles already. Even though I am very good at reading the whole subtitles at a single glance, and am then free to look back at their faces, I am certain that I still miss a lot of the subtleties in the actors’ expressions.

Oh well. There is always more happening in the world than we can take in, anyway. That is why God invented recordings, remote controls and the pause/rewind buttons: to help us Aspies catch up during replay ;P

Which is also why text messaging is SO much better than phone conversations for an Aspie. But that is a whole other story.

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