Research on identifying facial emotional expressions may alter how we see autism.
There is a widespread belief that autistic people are poor at recognizing the emotions of others and have little insight into how effectively they do so.
However, a recent Australian study has demonstrated that individuals with autism are just slightly less accurate than their non-autistic peers at recognizing facial expressions of emotion.
Recent research shows we may need to reevaluate widely held beliefs that adults with autism experience difficulties with social emotion recognition and have little insight into their processing of other people’s facial expressions. The findings were recently published in the journal Autism Research.
In a Flinders University study, 63 individuals with autism and 67 non-autistic adults (with IQs ranging from 85 to 143) took part in three 5-hour sessions comparing their identification of 12 human facial emotion expressions such as anger and sadness.
During her Ph.D., Dr. Marie Georgopoulos gathered a broad range of data, with later reanalyses by the research team serving as the foundation for a series of research papers.
The results could mean social difficulties linked with autism may actually reflect differences that only become apparent in certain social interactions or high-pressure scenarios, challenging the perspective that autistic adults can’t adequately read facial emotion expressions.
Study co-author and Matthew Flinders Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Neil Brewer, says by deploying a wide array of emotions, presented in a variety of different ways, this study suggests that autistic individuals are, on average, only slightly less accurate but at the same time somewhat slower when classifying others’ emotions.
“These findings challenge the notion that adults with autism are more likely to be overwhelmed by increasingly dynamic or complex emotional stimuli and to experience difficulties recognizing specific emotions.”
There was considerable overlap in performance between the two groups, with only a very small subgroup of autistic individuals performing at levels below that of their non-autistic peers.
The differences between groups were consistent regardless of how emotions were presented, the nature of the response required, or the particular emotion being looked at.
The research also showed that while there was considerable variability in terms of individuals’ insight into their interpretation of others’ emotions, there was no evidence of any differences between the autistic and non-autistic samples.
“The sophisticated methodologies used in these studies not only help refine our understanding of emotion processing in autism but also provide further demonstrations of hitherto unacknowledged capabilities of autistic individuals.”
“Further advances will likely require us to tap behaviors associated with emotion recognition and reactions to others’ emotions in real-life interactions or perhaps in virtual reality settings.”
Reference: “Facing up to others’ emotions: No evidence of autism-related deficits in metacognitive awareness of emotion recognition” by Neil Brewer, Carmen A. Lucas, Marie Antonia Georgopoulos and Robyn L. Young, 7 July 2022, Autism Research.
The study was funded by Flinders University.