Robust orienting to protofacial stimuli in autism

Punit Shah, Anne Gaule, Geoffrey Bird, Richard Cook

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Citations (SciVal)


Newborn infants exhibit a remarkable tendency to orient to faces. This behavior is thought to be mediated by a subcortical mechanism tuned to the protoface stimulus: a face-like configuration comprising three dark areas on a lighter background. When this unique stimulus translates across their visual field, neurotypical infants will change their gaze or head direction to track the protoface [1–3]. Orienting to this low spatial frequency pattern is thought to encourage infants to attend to faces, despite their poor visual acuity [2,3]. By biasing the input into the newborn’s visual system, this primitive instinct may serve to ‘canalize’ the development of more sophisticated face representation. Leading accounts attribute deficits of face perception associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) [4] to abnormalities within this orienting mechanism. If infants who are later diagnosed with ASD exhibit reduced protoface orienting, this may compromise the emergence of perceptual expertise for faces [5]. Here we report a novel effect that confirms that the protoface stimulus captures adults’ attention via an involuntary, exogenous process (Experiment 1). Contrary to leading developmental accounts of face perception deficits in ASD, we go on to show that this orienting response is intact in autistic individuals (Experiment 2).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R1087-8
Number of pages2
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number24
Publication statusPublished - 16 Dec 2013


  • Adult
  • Autistic Disorder
  • Face
  • Humans
  • Orientation
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Visual Perception
  • Letter
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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