Recognizing emotional facial expressions, an ability already impaired in many of those with autism, tends to get worse over time, according to new research from Georgetown University.
“Our findings suggest that while neurodevelopmental processes and social experience produce improvements in facial emotion recognition abilities for children without autism, autistic children experience disruptions in these processes,” said Dr. Abigail Marsh, associate professor of psychology in Georgetown College.
The researchers found consistent facial-emotion recognition deficits — particularly in expressions of anger, fear, and surprise — by analyzing data from more than 40 previous studies of facial-emotion recognition deficits in children and adults with autism.
“A major take-home message of this research is that impairments in recognizing emotional facial expressions get worse over time,” said researcher Leah Lozier, who just received her Ph.D. in neuroscience.
According to Marsh, there has been an ongoing discussion among researchers on whether or not facial expression recognition impairment even exists, and, if it does exist, whether it applies to only a few or many different types of emotions.
“It’s surprising how little consensus there has been on autism and its effects on facial expression recognition,” said Marsh, “because difficulties in nonverbal communication are a big part of an autism diagnosis.”
The researchers noted that since these difficulties become worse later in life, that adults with autism could have even more problems in social settings due to their inability to read nonverbal cues. They say their findings support the importance of developing treatments for people with autism long before they become adults.
“Autistic adults have even more trouble recognizing facial expressions than autistic children do,” said Marsh. “Given how important facial expressions are for regulating social interactions, this reinforces the importance of early interventions that may help prevent this gap from widening during development.”
It is estimated that about one in 68 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to the latest findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disorder is characterized by social and communication difficulties as well as repetitive behaviors.
“There is a snowballing effect,” Lozier said, “which underscores how important it is to develop targeted treatments and interventions for very young children in order to mitigate the developmental consequences before more severe impairments in affect recognition have set in.”
The research is published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.
Source: Georgetown University