When people with autism looked at the gestures of others associated with fear, certain areas like the superior temporal sulcus (observation of goal-related gestures) had the same activation patterns as non-autistic controls, but much lover levels of activity were seen in areas such as the amygdala (emotional recognition) and putative sites of mirror neurons like the inferior frontal gyrus and dorsal premotor cortex.Problems recognizing signs of threat or fear in others means that individuals on the spectrum are at increased risk for a wide variety of difficulties, like becoming too friendly with strangers, wandering beyond familiar areas, or not recognizing dangerous situations.
The finding in this study that superior temporal sulcus activation is similar between groups is interesting because it might suggest why cognitive teaching to read gestures helps for many individuals (pathways that support recognizing the intentions of gestures are intact). If a child or adult with autism lacks the more rapid protective quick emotional responses to threat, at least cognitively connecting the dots may take him out of harm's way.
From Liane Willey's wonderful book Pretending to be normal: living with Asperger's syndrome, a description of how her impaired perception of gestures put her at risk from an intruder in her classroom:
"Still, I was not particularly alarmed...I was curious, more intrigued by the effect he had on my quiet room, than I was by the possible effect he could have on my safety. He told me he had been in jail that he had just been released. A tiny bell sounded in my thoughts to alarm my suspicions, but I barely heard it." Fortunately for Professor Willey, she adds, "Ironically, though it was my AS that kept me from understanding this man was oddly misplaced at the best, and harmful at the worst, it was also my AS that helped me to realize I was in trouble." Once he invaded her personal space, her sensory sensitivities triggered an alarm and she immediately backed up. Fortunately too, the man fled after a male student entered the room.
Failure to grasp affective meanings of actions in autism spectrum disorders pdf
Keeping children on the autism spectrum safe
Safety resource for autism spectrum