Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 42, Issue 4, pp 634–639 | Cite as

Brief Report: Faces Cause Less Distraction in Autism

  • Deborah M. Riby
  • Philippa H. Brown
  • Nicola Jones
  • Mary Hanley
Brief Report


Individuals with autism have difficulties interpreting face cues that contribute to deficits of social communication. When faces need to be processed for meaning they fail to capture and hold the attention of individuals with autism. In the current study we illustrate that faces fail to capture attention in a typical manner even when they are non-functional to task completion. In a visual search task with a present butterfly target an irrelevant face distracter significantly slows performance of typical individuals. However, participants with autism (n = 28; mean 10 years 4 months) of comparable non-verbal ability are not distracted by the faces. Interestingly, there is a significant relationship between level of functioning on the autism spectrum and degree of face capture or distraction.


Face perception Social attention Autism 



This work was partly supported by funding from the Nuffield Foundation to the lead author. The authors would like to thank all the families and schools who participated in the research reported here. We would like to thank Dr. Stephen Langton for use of the butterfly target stimuli and guidance on work using this paradigm.


  1. Allen, G., & Courchesne, E. (2001). Attention function and dysfunction in autism. Frontiers of Bioscience, 6, 105–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. APA. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  3. Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., & Jolliffe, T. (1997). Is there a ‘language of the eyes’? Evidence from normal adults and adults with autism or Asperger syndrome. Visual Cognition, 4, 311–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bindemann, M., Burton, A. M., Hooge, I. T. C., Jenkins, R., & de Haan, E. H. F. (2005). Faces retain attention. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 12, 1048–1053.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Broadbent, D. (1958). Perception and communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dakin, S., & Frith, U. (2005). Vagaries of visual perception in autism. Neuron, 3, 497–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1976). Pictures of facial affect. Palo Alo, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.Google Scholar
  8. Farroni, T., Johnson, M. H., Menon, E., Zulian, L., Faraguna, D., & Csibra, G. (2005). Newborns’ preference for face-relevant stimuli: Effects of contrast polarity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102, 17245–17250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fletcher-Watson, S., Leekam, S. R., Turner, M. A., & Moxon, L. (2006). Do people with autistic spectrum disorder show normal selection for attention? Evidence from change blindness. British Journal of Psychology, 97, 537–554.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Freeth, M., Ropar, D., Chapman, P., & Mitchell, P. (2010). The eye-gaze direction of an observed person can bias perception, memory and attention in adolescents with and without autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 105, 20–37.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Goodman, R. (2001). Psychometric properties of the strengths and difficulties questionnaire. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(11), 1337–1345.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hershler, O., & Hochstein, S. (2005). At first sight: A high-level pop out effect for faces. Vision Research, 45, 1707–1724.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Johnson, M. H. (2005). Subcortical face processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6, 766–774.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kikuchi, Y., Senju, A., Tojo, Y., Osanai, H., & Hasegaw, T. (2009). Faces do not capture special attention in children with autism spectrum disorder: A change blindness study. Child Development, 80, 1421–1433.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R., Volkmar, F., & Cohen, D. (2002). Visual fixation patterns during viewing of naturalistic social situations as predictors of social competence in individuals with autism. Archives of General Psychiatry, 59, 809–816.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R., & Volkmar, F. (2003). The enactive mind or from actions to cognition: Lessons from autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 358, 345–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Langton, S. R. H., Law, A. S., Burton, A. M., & Schweinberger, S. R. (2008). Attention capture by faces. Cognition, 107, 330–342.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Lewis, M. B., & Edmonds, A. J. (2003). Face detection: Mapping human performance. Perception, 32, 903–920.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Raven, J. C., Court, J. H., & Raven, J. (1990). Raven’s coloured progressive matrices. Oxford: Oxfords Psychologists Press.Google Scholar
  20. Remington, A., Swettenham, J., Campbell, R., & Coleman, M. (2009). Selective attention and perceptual load in autism spectrum disorder. Psychological Science, 20, 1388–1393.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Riby, D. M., & Hancock, P. J. B. (2008). Viewing it differently: Social scene perception in Williams syndrome and autism. Neuropsychologia, 46, 2855–2860.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Riby, D. M., & Hancock, P. J. B. (2009a). Looking at movies and cartoons: Eye-tracking evidence from Williams syndrome and autism. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 53, 169–181.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Riby, D. M., & Hancock, P. J. B. (2009b). Do faces capture the attention of children with Williams syndrome or autism? Evidence from tracking eye-movements. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 421–431.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Riby, D. M., Jones, N., Brown, P. H., Robinson, L. J., Langton, S. R. H., Bruce, V., et al. (2010). Attention to faces in Williams syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-010-1141-5.
  25. Schopler, E., Rechler, R. J., & Rochen Renner, B. R. (1988). The childhood autism rating scale. LA: Western Psychological Services.Google Scholar
  26. Speer, L. L., Cook, A. E., McMahon, W. M., & Clark, E. (2007). Face processing in children with autism: Effects of stimulus contents and type. Autism, 11, 265–277.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Theewes, J., & Van der Stigchel, S. (2006). Faces capture attention: Evidence from inhibition of return. Visual Cognition, 13, 657–665.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Vuilleumier, P. (2000). Faces call for attention: Evidence from patients with visual extinction. Neuropsychologia, 38, 693–700.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Deborah M. Riby
    • 1
  • Philippa H. Brown
    • 2
  • Nicola Jones
    • 3
  • Mary Hanley
    • 4
  1. 1.School of PsychologyNewcastle UniversityNewcastle upon TyneUK
  2. 2.Regional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy ServiceNewcastle upon TyneUK
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyNorthumbria UniversityNewcastle upon TyneUK
  4. 4.School of PsychologyQueens UniversityBelfastUK

Personalised recommendations