People with Autism Can Read Facial Expressions Except for Angry Ones, Study Shows

It has been thought traditionally that people with autism may struggle to identify people’s emotions from their facial expressions, which may be a factor involved in the behavioral and social problems that people on the spectrum often experience. But 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 transformed these pictures into a collection of white dots on a black background like CGI does for films and games. Then they noted the intensity and the speed of each emotion the actors expressed.

The researchers then gathered 61 participants, 31 of whom had autism and 30 of whom did not. They asked each person to watch 108 short videos that displayed a combination of intensities and speeds of expression. Each participant rated each video they watched based on how sad, angry, or happy they thought the actor was.

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At the end of the study, no difference was found between the participants with autism and the ones without autism in terms of their emotional recognition abilities for happiness and sadness. There was however, a discrepancy in their ability to recognize anger.

“We identified that autistic people had a specific difficulty recognising anger,” says Connor Keating, the lead author of the study and a Ph.D. researcher in the University of Birmingham’s school of psychology.

The study seems to suggest that people with autism may need a stronger cue in order to detect anger, such as more obvious facial expressions or faster changes in a person’s features when they’re angry.

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However, the researchers also had a different explanation in mind:

“Another (non-mutually exclusive) explanation for why the autistic individuals may have particular difficulty recognising angry expressions relates 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 emotion of anger, they may only recognize their own version of the expression and struggle with the non-autistic version.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Victoria М

“If this is true, it may not be accurate to talk about autistic people as having an ‘impairment’ or ‘deficit’ in recognising emotion – it’s more that autistic and non-autistic faces may be speaking a different language when it comes to conveying emotion,” says Keating.

Next, the team compared their results to those of people with alexithymia, a condition that causes people to struggle to identify and express emotions. The goal was to determine whether the issue of recognizing anger was due to autism or other factors.

“We found that it was definitely autistic traits that contribute, but not alexithymic traits,” Keating said. “That suggests recognising anger is a difficulty that’s specific to autism.”

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This study is the first of its kind to undertake statistical analysis and provide a better link between autism and accurate perception of facial expressions.

“Everyone will know or meet somebody with autism at some point in their lives,” says Keating. “By better understanding how people with autism perceive and understand the world we can start to develop training and other interventions for both autistic and non-autistic people to overcome some of the barriers to interacting successfully.”

Hopefully this study can go a long way to help others understand how people with autism understand the world differently. The work was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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