Using facial features to detect autism is a growing area of research. While it could aid in diagnosis, much of the research lacks reliability.

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If you live with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or suspect you have autism, obtaining a diagnosis can be challenging. Researchers and clinicians are often looking for ways to diagnose conditions such as autism in more efficient and accurate ways.

Autistic individuals may have different facial features than their non-autistic counterparts. If a diagnosis of autism is made by looking at individual facial features, it could help more individuals obtain a diagnosis quicker and gain the support that they need at an earlier age.

Yes, some studies support the idea that autistic individuals have a specific set of facial features. A 2019 study of autistic children found two facial markers that helped identify autism; a decreased height of the facial midline and eyes spaced far apart.

This study had a small sample size and was only conducted with caucasian children. Due to the study’s limitations, it lacks reliability.

Additional research on facial features in autistic children supports the findings of the first study, suggesting that facial features of autism include:

  • a broader upper face
  • a bigger mouth and philtrum
  • a shorter middle face
  • wider eyes

The authors also suggest that differences in brain development of autistic people could cause differing facial features. Using physical markers to help detect autism is a growing area in autism research.

It’s important to note that because of the limited research in this area, it doesn’t mean that having these features makes you autistic. You could still be autistic without having these features.

Autism diagnosis in children is currently most often based on observational tools that assess social and cognitive development, according to 2021 research. The authors suggest that two main tools help aid in the diagnosis of autism:

  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR): outlines criteria many mental health professionals use to diagnose autism spectrum disorder
  • Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT): a yes or no developmental symptom checklist used to help diagnose children from 16-30 months of age

Facial features can help diagnose autism, but they shouldn’t be relied on solely to diagnose autism. Using facial features to diagnose autism is a growing area of research, mainly to help detect autism earlier and provide autistic individuals with the support that they need.

The trouble with relying on facial features alone is that while there’s a set of facial features that are common in autistic individuals, those features can also occur in non-autistic individuals.

Research from 2022 reviewed several models aimed at detecting autism using facial features and found many models could detect autism with 86%–95% accuracy. The researchers suggest that computational tools with facial detection could aid physicians or mental health clinicians with diagnosis.

There are little to no studies on other physical characteristics of autism helping detect the condition. There are noticeable characteristics that may lead a parent to get their child evaluated for autism at a young age.

Early signs of autism include:

  • delays in language, such as verbal comprehension and speech production
  • challenges with motor skills
  • poor eye contact
  • social difficulties, such as having no interest in other children
  • lack of response when their name is called
  • restricted or repetitive interests
  • difficulty changing routines
  • trouble with non-verbal body language, such as pointing or gesturing

Sometimes, these signs are missed by clinicians, healthcare providers, or parents, creating a need for in-depth research on detection and diagnosis methods.

Facial features can potentially aid clinicians and other medical professionals in detecting and diagnosing autism. While there are facial traits that have been shown in research to be more common in autistic individuals, this should not be the sole method of diagnosis.

The current research that supports this notion has small sample sizes and limitations. Many researchers believe that facial features display the brain differences autistic individuals have.

If this area of research continues to grow and supports this notion with larger sample sizes and more diverse populations, this could help provide autistic individuals with support and treatment at an earlier age.

If you’re autistic and need support, you can locate neurodivergent-friendly clinicians using the Inclusive Therapists Directory. You may also visit PsychCentral’s Autism Resource Hub for education and resources.