Can autistic adults recognize facial emotions?

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New research challenges the long-standing perception that autistic adults aren't good at recognizing facial emotions.

Can autistic adults recognize facial emotions? A woman with a neutral expression is standing indoors against a grey wall. They are holding up two photos of themselves: the one on the left is her looking surprise and the one on the right is her smiling.

Most autistic adults can recognise facial emotions, almost as well as those without the condition

There is a common perception autistic people are poor at recognizing other people's emotions.

New research showed no evidence that autistic people were less able to recognize facial emotions than non-autistic people.

Future research is needed on how autistic people respond to other people's emotions. 

, Matthew Flinders Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Flinders University

Difficulties with social communication and interaction are considered core features of autism. There is a common perception autistic people are poor at recognizing others’ emotions and have little insight into how effectively they do so.


We are used to seeing these challenges portrayed in popular culture, such as in television shows The Good Doctor, Atypical, or Love on the Spectrum. And there are exercises and therapies autistic people might do with a psychologist or speech pathologist to try to help them improve at this important social skill.


Yet, the research findings are messy. Some studies have very small sample sizes, and others do not control for cognitive ability. Some studies only show participants a limited range of emotions to respond to. Some rely heavily on static images of facial expressions or only require multiple-choice responses. Studies designed this way don’t capture the dynamic demands of everyday social interactions.


Our new research sought to overcome these challenges and found little difference between the ability of autistic adults and those without to recognize emotions in others.


Read more: Why do workplaces need to embrace Neurodiversity?

Two matched groups: autistic and non-autistic adults

For our research on whether or not autistic adults recognize facial emotions, we studied a relatively large sample of 67 IQ-matched autistic and 67 non-autistic adults. The research was conducted by then doctoral student Dr Marie Georgopoulos, myself, Professor Robyn Young and post-doctoral researcher Dr Carmen Lucas.


We presented them with multiple examples of 12 different face emotion types captured in still photographs and videoed in the context of social interactions. Participants were then able to give open-ended reports of the emotions they saw.


Several key findings emerged. First, emotion type, the way in which the stimuli were presented and the format for providing responses all affected accuracy and speed of emotion recognition. But those variations didn’t affect the differences between autistic and non-autistic groups’ responses.


Second, although emotion recognition accuracy was a little lower for the autistic group, there was substantial overlap in ability between the two groups. Just a small subgroup of the autistic participants performed below the level of the non-autistic group.

Third, the autistic participants responded more slowly, but again there was considerable overlap between the two groups. Although slower responses to others’ emotions might impede social interactions, our study suggests autistic people were probably just acting more cautiously in the laboratory setting.


We found there was no evidence that, as a group, autistic people were less aware of strengths and weaknesses in their emotion recognition skills than their non-autistic peers. But again, the awareness of people within each group varied substantially.


Challenging assumptions: can autistic adults process emotions?

These findings challenge some common perceptions about whether or not autistic adults recognize facial emotions, their ability to recognize others’ emotions, and their insight into their processing of emotions. The findings also demonstrate the previously unacknowledged capabilities of many autistic people and remind us - once again -that autistic adults are not all the same.


That said, there are many unanswered questions. A full understanding of emotion processing by autistic people will require the incorporation of many more elements in future research.


For example, it is possible our findings underestimate autistic individuals’ difficulties with processing emotions. These difficulties might only emerge in the hurly-burly of real-life interactions with others.


So, we will need to develop more sophisticated research methods that still allow us to conduct carefully controlled studies. These studies would seek to accommodate the complexities of everyday interpersonal interactions that not only require processing of faces, but also gestures and voice tone or emphasis at the same time.

What is the impact of autism on emotions?

Future research will also need a greater focus on how autistic people respond to others’ emotions. Perhaps autistic adults can recognize emotions but respond in ways that might compromise the effectiveness of their social exchanges?


We have conducted further research to explore autistic and non-autistic adults’ perceptions of the appropriate ways to respond to different emotions displayed by others. This is but one dimension of what is often referred to as “empathic responding” – knowing what might be considered an appropriate reaction when confronted with another person who is, for example, sad, angry, or frustrated. However, sensing what an appropriate response is then carrying out that action, or even being motivated to do so, don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.


Answers to questions like these will be critical for refining interventions and therapies designed to improve social interaction skills in autistic people. Identifying the most important focus for intervention, the most effective procedures, and the developmental stages at which such interventions should be implemented are all important areas for ongoing research.

Can autistic adults recognize facial emotions was published as 'Most adults with autism can recognize facial emotions, almost as well as those without the condition' in The Conversation. It is republished here under under a Creative Commons — Attribution/No derivatives license

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Article by
Neil Brewer

Matthew Flinders Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Flinders University

Caption:

New research challenge some common perceptions about whether or not autistic adults recognize facial emotions, their ability to recognize others’ emotions, and their insight into their processing of emotions. | ©Martin/Adobe Stock

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