A new study from the University of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology finds some evidence supporting the notion that kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have a harder time recognizing facial expressions.
Writing in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, the authors noted that research aiming to demonstrate an impairment in facial expression recognition in individuals with ASD has provided mixed results — perhaps having to do with the intensity of the expression.
For this study, the researchers recruited 63 children who had been diagnosed with autism, and another 64 children who did not have autism. All were between the ages of 6 and 16.
They were asked to take an Internet-based test of emotion recognition for six emotions: happy, sad, surprised, disgusted, scared, and angry. They were asked to select a label that matched each expression.
Some faces had exaggerated “high-intensity” expressions, which were easier to identify, while others had subtle “low-intensity” expressions — which were more difficult, but considered more relevant to real world interactions, according to the researchers.
The research team also measured language skills and non-verbal reasoning skills to see if differences in these skills explained any differences in the ability to recognize emotions.
The study found that young people with autism do find it harder to recognize emotion from facial expressions. But the types of mistakes made by the young people with autism were very similar to the types of mistakes made by young people without autism, they noted. For example, young people in both groups often mistook fear for surprise and confused disgust and anger.
The biggest differences between the two groups was for the clearest high-intensity expressions, according to the study’s findings.
The researchers say they think this was due to all the participants, including those without autism, struggling to recognize the emotion in the low-intensity expressions.
“This study is important as previous research provided very mixed results with some finding individuals with autism less accurate in recognizing expressions on average, and others finding no difference,” said Sarah Griffiths, a researcher who worked on the study as part of her Ph.D. at the University of Bristol; she is now at the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre.
“In this study we used an online platform to run a larger study to answer this question more conclusively and found that individuals with autism are, on average, a bit less accurate at recognizing emotion from faces,” she said.
“These findings provide further evidence that people with autism spectrum conditions have a degree of difficulty in recognizing basic emotions from facial expressions,” added co-author Dr. Chris Jarrold, a professor in cognitive development at the University of Bristol. “For those who do struggle with recognizing emotions from faces, teaching emotion recognition may be helpful for learning to navigate social situations.”
The research team developed an iPad app, “About Face,” to teach facial emotion recognition for people with and without autism spectrum conditions. This app contains both the high and low-intensity expressions that were used in the study so the difficulty can be tailored to the ability level of the user.
Source: University of Bristol