It is generally considered that individuals affected by autism may have difficulty recognizing other people’s facial emotions. However, a new study indicates that although there is considerable individual variability, the ability of people affected by autism to detect emotions on other people’s faces is only slightly lower than that of people not affected by this condition.
According to the CDC, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects the way someone communicates, interacts with others, and thinks. It can be extremely difficult to live with and often leads to impairments in social communication, repetitive behaviors or interests, as well as restricted interests and activities. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question since every person affected by autism experiences it differently.
While it is difficult to estimate the exact number of people who have autism, experts believe that it may be as high as 1 in 100 — or even higher. This means that there are an estimated 34 million Americans who may be affected by this disorder. Although our understanding of autism has improved substantially over the past few years, we are still only now starting to understand this condition.
In the new study, researchers recruited 63 people affected by autism and 67 who are not affected. They tested the participant’s ability to read other people’s facial emotions across various types of emotions of varying complexity.
Study co-author and Matthew Flinders Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Neil Brewer, says that the findings showed that people affected by autism are, on average, only slightly less accurate at classifying other people’s emotions — but they are a bit slower when classifying. In fact, there was a great deal of overlap between the two groups, with only a small subgroup of individuals affected by autism performing at levels below their peers.
“Although the autistic group was less accurate and slower to recognize emotions, confidence-accuracy calibration analyses provided no evidence of reduced sensitivity on their part to fluctuations in their emotion recognition performance,” the researchers write in the study.
The findings contradict a common belief that shows up even in research and may suggest that, if given enough time, people affected by autism can have no problem with the facial recognition of emotions — though real life may not always provide this opportunity.
This could also have an effect on therapies applied for ASD. While there is no cure for ASD, these types of treatments offer hope and opportunity for families who feel lost without any answers.
While there is not a single therapy that is proven to be effective for all people with autism, certain therapies may be helpful in specific cases. Occupational and speech therapists can help children with autism learn how to deal more effectively with their environment, which might include modifying routines or tasks in order to minimize sensory input. Behavior therapists can teach parents techniques for dealing better with challenging behaviors, and neuropsychologists may specialize in working specifically with autistic children and adolescents, using psychology to evaluate and improve cognitive functioning in individuals suffering from autism. Another approach is applied behavior analysis therapy, which focuses on the principles and techniques of learning theory to help increase or decrease certain behaviors.
But all these therapies are based on imperfect information. The knowledge of the causes and treatment of ASD is not yet compelling and despite a great deal of research, progress is still slow. Studies like this one can help us understand how ASD manifests itself and how factual many of the beliefs around it truly are. Still, this is a small sample and should be replicated with a larger cohort before definite conclusions can be drawn here.
The study, “Facing up to others’ emotions: No evidence of autism-related deficits in metacognitive awareness of emotion recognition,” has been published in Autism Research.