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For individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), even something as seemingly small as eye contact can prove difficult. While the avoidance of eye contact is traditionally interpreted as a sign of indifference or disinterest, many with autism suggest that the act can feel uncomfortable or even painful for them, like a burning sensation in their eyes.

A team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging are working to shed light on the mechanisms of the brain associated with eye contact, with their findings being recently published in a Scientific Reports paper online.

Nouchine Hadjikhani, MD, PhD, director of neurolimbic research at the Martinos Center and corresponding author of the new study, stated, “Contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern. Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from over activation in a particular part of the brain.” In short, people with autism choose to refrain from eye contact as a means of suppressing neurological stimulation so as to not find themselves in a state of overstimulation.

RoboKind seeks to assist researchers like Dr. Hadjikhani through their highly effective Robots4Autism program, an educational effort to engage children with autism through the use of advanced learning tools such as Milo, the advanced social robot. Not only can Milo support educators in teaching, he can also act as a non-threatening stepping stone in social development for situations involving eye contact.

As social beings, we all yearn for meaningful engagement and communication with people around us. With the help of Robots4Autism, individuals with autism who find social interaction overwhelming can step into the world and build these meaningful connections.

This story, originally published by Science Daily, can be found here.

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