It's All in the Eyes: Subcortical and Cortical Activation during Grotesqueness Perception in Autism
Atypical face processing plays a key role in social interaction difficulties encountered by individuals with autism. In the current fMRI study, the Thatcher illusion was used to investigate several aspects of face processing in 20 young adults with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and 20 matched neurotypical controls. "Thatcherized" stimuli were modified at either the eyes or the mouth and participants discriminated between pairs of faces while cued to attend to either of these features in upright and inverted orientation. Behavioral data confirmed sensitivity to the illusion and intact configural processing in ASD. Directing attention towards the eyes vs. the mouth in upright faces in ASD led to (1) improved discrimination accuracy; (2) increased activation in areas involved in social and emotional processing; (3) increased activation in subcortical face-processing areas. Our findings show that when explicitly cued to attend to the eyes, activation of cortical areas involved in face processing, including its social and emotional aspects, can be enhanced in autism. This suggests that impairments in face processing in autism may be caused by a deficit in social attention, and that giving specific cues to attend to the eye-region when performing behavioral therapies aimed at improving social skills may result in a better outcome.