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Face-to-face interference in typical and atypical development

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Debbie Riby, Professor Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon


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Visual communication cues facilitate interpersonal communication. It is important that we look at faces to retrieve and subsequently process such cues. It is also important that we sometimes look away from faces as they increase cognitive load that may interfere with online processing. Indeed, when typically developing individuals hold face gaze it interferes with task completion. In this novel study we quantify face interference for the first time in Williams syndrome (WS) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These disorders of development impact on cognition and social attention, but how do faces interfere with cognitive processing? Individuals developing typically as well as those with ASD (n=19) and WS (n=16) were recorded during a question - answer session that involved mathematics questions. In phase 1 gaze behaviour was not manipulated but in phase 2 participants were required to maintain eye contact with the experimenter at all times. Looking at faces decreased task accuracy for individuals who were developing typically. Critically, the same pattern was seen in WS and ASD, whereby task performance decreased when participants were required to hold face gaze. The results show that looking at faces interferes with task performance in all groups. This finding requires the caveat that individuals with WS and ASD found it harder than individuals who were developing typically to maintain eye contact throughout the interaction. Individuals with ASD struggled to hold eye contact at all points of the interaction while those with WS found it especially difficult when thinking.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Riby DM, Doherty-Sneddon D, Whittle L

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Developmental Science

Year: 2012

Volume: 15

Issue: 2

Pages: 281-291

Print publication date: 03/12/2011

ISSN (print): 1363-755X

ISSN (electronic): 1467-7687

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd.


DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01125.x

Notes: This is the first study to experimentally quantify the impact of attending to faces while conducting cognitive operations in both typical and atypical development. The research has important implications for understanding typical social interaction behaviours as well as theories of autism.


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