Recognising facial expressions tough for autistic kids: study

By: | Updated: March 31, 2017 2:46 PM

Children who suffer from autism find it difficult to accurately recognise facial expressions, a new study has found.

Children who suffer from autism find it difficult to accurately recognise facial expressions, a new study has found. (Reuters)

Children who suffer from autism find it difficult to accurately recognise facial expressions, a new study has found. Researchers from University of Bristol in the UK gave 63 children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) diagnosis and 64 without a diagnosis, an internet-based test of emotion recognition. The two groups, aged between 6-16 years, were presented with ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘surprised’, ‘disgusted’, ‘scared’ and ‘angry’ facial expressions and asked to select a label that matched the 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.

The team also measured language skills and non-verbal reasoning skills in order to see if differences in these skills explained any differences in ability to recognise emotions. Researchers found that young people with ASC do find it harder to recognise emotion from facial expressions. However, the types of mistake made by young people with ASC were very similar to the types of mistake made by young people without ASC. For example, young people in both groups often mistook ‘fear’ for ‘surprise’ and confused ‘disgust’ and ‘anger’.

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Interestingly, the biggest differences between the ASC and non-ASC groups was for the clearest ‘high-intensity’ expressions. The researchers think this was due to participants, including those without ASD, struggling to recognise the emotion in the ‘low-intensity’ expressions, making it hard for them to then see any clear difference between groups. “This study is important as previous research provided very mixed results with some finding individuals with autism less accurate in recognising expressions on average, and others finding no difference,” said Sarah Griffiths, who completed the at the University of Bristol in the UK.

“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 recognising emotion from faces,” said Griffiths, who is now based at the University of Cambridge in the UK. “These findings provide further evidence that people with ASC have a degree of difficulty in recognising basic emotions from facial expressions,” said Chris Jarrold, Professor at the University of Bristol. “For those who do struggle with recognising emotions from faces, teaching emotion recognition may be helpful for learning to navigate social situations,” said Jarrold.

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