Development and Psychopathology

Research Article

The role of eye contact in goal detection: Evidence from normal infants and children with autism or mental handicap

Wendy Phillipsa1, Simon Baron-Cohena2 and Michael Ruttera1

a1 Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, University of London

a2 Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, University of London


One reason for looking at a person's eyes may be to diagnose their goal, because a person's eye direction reliably specifies what they are likely to act upon next. We report an experiment that investigates whether or not young normal infants use eye contact for this function. We placed them in situations in which the adult's action toward them was either ambiguous or unambiguous in its goal. Results showed that the majority of normal infants and young children with mental handicap made instant eye contact immediately following the ambiguous action but rarely after the unambiguous action. Young children with autism, in contrast, made eye contact equally (little) in both conditions. These results are discussed in relation to the function of eye contact, to our understanding of infant cognition, and to the theory of mind hypothesis of autism.