SCIENTISTS OFFICIALLY confirmed the long-believed theory, that children with autism not only have a hard time reading emotions on people’s faces, but often confuse them.
Emotions of ‘fear’ and ‘surprise’ are often mistaken for each other as well as ‘disgust’ and ‘anger’. Approximately one in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which includes autism as well as Asperger syndrome and other developmental disorders.
It is more often diagnosed in boys than in girls by about five times. People with autism often have problems with social, emotional and communication skills. They might repeat certain behaviours and might not want change in their daily activities. Many people with autism also have different ways of learning, paying attention or reacting to things.
For the study, conducted at the University of Bristol in the UK, researchers gave an online test of emotion recognition to 63 children and teens with autism and to 64 youth without the diagnosis.
Participants saw ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘surprised’, ‘disgusted’, ‘scared’ and ‘angry’ facial expressions. Some faces were exaggerated and designed to be easy to read and others were subtle, designed to be more challenging to interpret.
The participants were around 11 years old on average and most of the children in the autism group were male, compared to about half of the children in the group without autism.
The research team had expected to find a smaller difference between the groups in recognizing the exaggerated emotions. Instead, they found a bigger difference with more intense emotions, likely because children in both groups made similar errors in recognizing subtle feelings.
This made it hard for researchers to detect clear differences between the children with and without autism.
‘We found that, on average, young people with autism are a bit less accurate at recognising all expressions, not just the subtle ones,’ said lead author Sarah Griffiths, of the University of Cambridge Autism Research Centre.
‘The types of mistakes that children with autism make, like confusing ‘scared’ and ‘surprised’, are the same types of mistakes made by typically developing children.
‘So, it’s not just that children with autism interpret emotions completely differently, but they are more likely to make common misinterpretations.’
The researchers noted that one limitation of the study was that many participants – about 30 per cent of the autism group – who started the online facial recognition test didn’t finish it.
Still, previous brain imaging studies have found areas of the brain involved in decoding emotions and facial expressions are less active in people with autism, said Dr Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Centre for Autism in Durham, North Carolina.
‘The good news is that we can help people with autism learn to interpret facial expressions,’ said Dr Dawson, who wasn’t involved in the study.
‘Early behavioural intervention focuses on helping the young child with autism pay attention and respond appropriately to facial expressions.
‘There are also training programs in which people with autism can be taught explicitly what each facial expression means and then practice these skills in real life settings.’