Folks with Autism Can Learn Facial Expressions Apart from Indignant Ones, Examine Exhibits
It has traditionally been believed that people with autism have difficulty identifying people’s emotions from their facial expressions, which can be a factor that may be involved in the behavioral and social problems that people on the spectrum frequently experience. However, recent research shows that people with autism are actually pretty good at reading facial expressions – with one notable exception.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham used a computer system to map the facial expressions of four actors. They turned these images into a collection of white dots on a black background, like CGI does for movies and games. Then they recorded the intensity and speed of each emotion the actors expressed.
The researchers then collected 61 participants, of whom 31 had autism and 30 did not. They asked each person to watch 108 short videos that showed a combination of intensities and speeds of expression. Each participant rated each video they watched based on how sad, angry, or happy the actor was.
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At the end of the study, there was no difference between the participants with autism and those without autism in terms of their emotional recognition skills for happiness and sadness. However, there was a discrepancy in their ability to recognize anger.
“We found that autistic people have particular difficulty recognizing anger,” says Connor Keating, lead author of the study and Ph.D. Researcher at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology.
The study seems to suggest that people with autism may need a stronger signal to recognize anger, such as clearer expressions or faster changes in a person’s facial features when they are angry.
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However, the researchers also had another explanation in mind:
“Another (non-mutually exclusive) explanation of why autistic individuals have particular difficulty recognizing angry expressions is related to [their own] Movement production, ”they said.
In other words, because people with autism may make different faces than people without autism to convey the same sense of anger, they may just recognize their own version of the expression and struggle with the non-autistic version.
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“If so, it may not be correct to refer to autistic people with a ‘disability’ or ‘deficit’ in recognizing emotions – it is more likely that autistic and non-autistic faces speak a different language when it’s about conveying emotions emotions, ”says Keating.
Next, the team compared their results with those of people with alexithymia, a condition that causes people to have difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions. The aim was to determine if the anger detection problem was due to autism or other factors.
“We found that it was definitely autistic traits that were contributing, but not alexithymic traits,” Keating said. “This suggests that recognizing anger is a difficulty that is specific to autism.”
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This study is the first of its kind to perform statistical analysis and establish a better connection between autism and the precise perception of facial expressions.
“Everyone will know or meet someone with autism at some point in their life,” says Keating. “By better understanding how people with autism perceive and understand the world, we can begin to develop training and other interventions for autistic and non-autistic people to overcome some of the barriers to successful interaction.”
Hopefully this study can go a long way in helping others understand how people with autism see the world differently. The work was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.