Autism Spectrum Disorders Research Program

The Caltech Autism Spectrum Disorders Research Program studies the cognitive and emotional aspects of adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The research contributes to our understanding of brain function in ASD by using techniques such as neuroimaging (magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI), eye-tracking, and psychophysiology.

These studies should help us to better understand the difficulties in social behavior that are often seen in people with ASD. Because our research participants are adults, our research is relatively unique in providing information about social function in adults.

Some of the questions pertaining to this study:  

  • How do we recognize emotion from facial expressions?
  • How do we move our eyes when talking with someone?
  • What brain areas are connected when we pay attention to visual and auditory social stimuli?

Eye-tracking Studies

Our lab conducts studies which make comparisons across clinical populations, and across techniques.

Shown here are eyetracking data to faces comparing autism to an individual with bilateral amygdala lesions: the hotter colors indicate that people fixate these regions the most.

Left: healthy controls.  Middle:  patient with amydala lesions.  Right: people with high-functioning autism.


I.A. Rosenthal, C.A. Hutcherson, R. Adolphs, D. Stanley (2019). Deconstructing theory-of-mind impairment in high-functioning adults with autism. Current Biology 29: 513-519.

S. Wang, R. Adolphs (2017). Reduced specificity in emotion judgment in people with autism spectrum disorder. Neuropsychologia 99: 286-295.

S. Wang, S. Fan, B.Chen, S. Hakimi, L.K. Paul, Q. Zhao, R. Adolphs (2016). Revealing the world of autism through the lens of a camera. Current Biology 26: R1-R3.

Birmingham, E., Stanley, D., Nair, R., & Adolphs, R. (2015). Implicit social biases in people with autism. Psychol Sci. 26(11):1693-705. doi: 10.1177/0956797615595607.

Byrge, L., Dubois, J., Tyszka, J. M., Adolphs, R., & Kennedy, D. P. (2015). Idiosyncratic brain activation patterns are associated with poor social comprehension in autism. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(14), 5837-5850. doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.5182-14.2015

Gharib, A., Mier, D., Adolphs, R., & Shimojo, S. (2015). Eyetracking of social preference choices reveals normal but faster processing in autism. Neuropsychologia, 72, 70-79. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.04.027

Kennedy, D. P., Paul, L. K., & Adolphs, R. (2015). Brain connectivity in autism: The significance of null findings. Biological Psychiatry, 78(2), 81-82. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.05.002

Pantelis, P.C., Byrge, L., Tyszka, J.M., Adolphs, R., & Kennedy, D.P. (2015). A specific hypoactivation of right temporo-parietal junction/posterior superior temporal sulcus in response to socially awkward situations in autism. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 10(10):1348-56. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv021.

Wang, S., Jiang M., Duchesne, X.M., Laugeson, E.A., Kennedy, D.P., Adolphs, R., & Zhao, Q. (2015). Atypical visual saliency in autism spectrum disorder quantified through model-based eye tracking. Neuron. 88(3): 604–616.

Kennedy, D. P., & Adolphs, R. (2014). Violations of Personal Space by Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. PLoS ONE, 9(8). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103369

Paul, L. K., Corsello, C., Kennedy, D. P., & Adolphs, R. (2014). Agenesis of the corpus callosum and autism: a comprehensive comparison. Brain, 137, 1813-1829. doi: 10.1093/brain/awu070

Tyszka, J. M., Kennedy, D. P., Paul, L. K., & Adolphs, R. (2014). Largely Typical Patterns of Resting-State Functional Connectivity in High-Functioning Adults with Autism. Cerebral Cortex, 24(7), 1894-1905. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht040

Wang, S., Xu, J., Jiang, M., Zhao, Q., Hurlemann, R., & Adolphs, R. (2014). Autism spectrum disorder, but not amygdala lesions, impairs social attention in visual search. Neuropsychologia, 63, 259-274. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.09.002

Rutishauser, U., Tudusciuc, O., Wang, S., Mamelak, A. N., Ross, I. B., & Adolphs, R. (2013). Single-neuron correlates of atypical face processing in autism. Neuron, 80(4), 887-899. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.08.029

Dichter, G., & Adolphs, R. (2012). Reward processing in autism: a thematic series. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 4(20). doi: 10.1186/1866-1955-4-20

Kennedy, D. P., & Adolphs, R. (2012). Perception of emotions from facial expressions in high-functioning adults with autism. Neuropsychologia, 50(14), 3313-3319. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.09.038

Lin, A., Rangel, A., & Adolphs, R. (2012). Impaired learning of social compared to monetary rewards in autism. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 6. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00143

Lin, A., Tsai, K., Rangel, A., & Adolphs, R. (2012). Reduced social preferences in autism: evidence from charitable donations. Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, 4. doi: 10.1186/1866-1955-4-8

Birmingham, E., Cerf, M., & Adolphs, R. (2011). Comparing social attention in autism and amygdala lesions: effects of stimulus and task condition. Social Neuroscience, 6(5-6), 420-435. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2011.561547

Izuma, K., Matsumoto, K., Camerer, C. F., & Adolphs, R. (2011). Insensitivity to social reputation in autism. Neuroscience Research, 71, E77-E77. doi: 10.1016/j.neures.2011.07.327

Losh, M., Adolphs, R., & Rangel, A. (2011). The Broad Autism Phenotype. In D. G. Amaral (Ed.), Autism Spectrum Disorders. Bangalore: Cadmus.

Couture, S. M., Penn, D. L., Losh, M., Adolphs, R., Hurley, R., & Piven, J. (2010). Comparison of social cognitive functioning in schizophrenia and high functioning autism: more convergence than divergence. Psychological Medicine, 40(4), 569-579. doi: Doi 10.1017/S003329170999078x

Yucel, G., Parlier, M., Adolphs, R., Belger, A., & Piven, J. (2010). Face Processing in the Broad Autism Phenotype: An fMRI Study. Biological Psychiatry, 67(9), 43S-43S.

Losh, M., Adolphs, R., Poe, M. D., Couture, S., Penn, D., Baranek, G. T., & Piven, J. (2009). Neuropsychological profile of autism and the broad autism phenotype. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66(5), 518-526.

Kennedy, D. P. & Courchesne, E. (2008). Functional abnormalities of the default network during self- and other-reflection in autism. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, 3(2), 177-190.

Kennedy, D. P. & Courchesne, E. (2008). The intrinsic functional organization of the brain is altered in autism. Neuroimage, 39(4), 1877-1885.

Courchesne, E., Pierce, K., Schumann, C. M., Redcay, E., Buckwalter, J. A., Kennedy, D. P., & Morgan, J. (2007). Mapping early brain development in autism. Neuron, 56(2), 399-413.

Kennedy, D. P., Semendeferi, K., & Courchesne, E. (2007). No reduction of spindle neuron number in frontoinsular cortex in autism. Brain and Cognition, 64(2), 124-129.

Sasson, N., Tsuchiya, N., Hurley, R., Couture, S. M., Penn, D. L., Adolphs, R., & Piven, J. (2007). Orienting to social stimuli differentiates social cognitive impairment in autism and schizophrenia. Neuropsychologia, 45(11), 2580-2588. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.03.009

Spezio, M. L., Adolphs, R., Hurley, R. S. E., & Piven, J. (2007a). Abnormal use of facial information in high-functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(5), 929-939. doi: 10.1007/s10803-006-0232-9

Spezio, M. L., Adolphs, R., Hurley, R. S. E., & Piven, J. (2007b). Analysis of face gaze in autism using “Bubbles”. Neuropsychologia, 45(1), 144-151. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.04.027

Kennedy, D. P., Redcay, E., & Courchesne, E. (2006). Failing to deactivate: resting functional abnormalities in autism.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(21), 8275-8280.

Neumann, D., Spezio, M. L., Piven, J., & Adolphs, R. (2006). Looking you in the mouth: abnormal gaze in autism resulting from impaired top-down modulation of visual attention. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1(3), 194-202. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsl030

Castelli, F. (2005). Understanding emotions from standardized facial expressions in autism and normal development. Autism, 9(4), 428-449.

Courchesne, E., Redcay, E., Morgan, J. T., & Kennedy, D. P. (2005). Autism at the beginning: microstructural and growth abnormalities underlying the cognitive and behavioral phenotype of autism. Developmental Psychopathology, 17(3), 577-597.

Pelphrey, K., Adolphs, R., & Morris, J. P. (2004). Neuroanatomical substrates of social cognition dysfunction in autism. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 10(4), 259-271. doi: 10.1002/mrdd

Castelli, F., Frith, C., Happe, F., & Frith, U. (2002). Autism, Asperger syndrome and brain mechanisms for the attribution of mental states to animated shapes. Brain, 125(Pt 8), 1839-1849.

Adolphs, R., Sears, L., & Piven, J. (2001). Abnormal processing of social information from faces in autism. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 13(2), 232-240.