The stare-in-the-crowd (SITC) effect describes the ability to detect self-directed gaze in a crowd. Given the importance of gaze detection in initiating and maintaining social interactions, there is a need to better characterize the SITC effect.
Autistic and neurotypical young adults were presented with four SITC conditions. Eye tracking outcomes and arousal were compared by diagnosis and condition using repeated measures analysis of variance. Hierarchical regression was used to explore behavioral measures.
Significant interaction of diagnosis and condition was found for eye tracking outcomes. Overall, autistic participants exhibited less looking than neurotypical participants. Interest area dwell time, fixation count, and second fixation duration were significantly higher for conditions with shifting gaze, as well as conditions with more self-directed gaze across participants. Two hierarchical regression models of gaze behaviors with advanced theory of mind as a predictor were significant.
Autistic individuals respond to various gaze conditions in similar patterns to neurotypical individuals, but to a lesser extent. These findings offer important targets for social interventions.