New Research Could Change Our Understanding of Autism

Woman Facial Recognition Concept

It is commonly believed that autistic individuals are worse at recognizing other people’s emotions. Could this belief be false?

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
DOI: 10.1002/aur.2781

The study was funded by Flinders University.


View Comments

  • As an Occupational Therapist, I would argue that Autistic persons recognize what is actually being conveyed by the person, rather than accepting the social mask they present. This is upsetting to folks who rely on others to accept what they try to present, rather than seeing beyond it. Most of the person's with Autism that I work with perceive more stimuli, not less.

  • I'm an autistic adult, and I wanted to point out that we've been trying to tell the scientific community these things for decades. We are the experts of our own lived experiences, and we've been systematically left out of the conversation about our own lives because we're presumed incompetent by the academic/scientific community despite the fact that so many of us are in those communities.

    I'm also curious about several things: First, why isn't there more transparency into why these types of studies are conducted? I'm reluctant to participate in any study which doesn't specify its aims or reasons for existing. I don't wish to inadvertently support eugenics-adjacent work. What I mean is, typically, the scientific community is still doing research for "a cure" rather than to leverage more support and societal acceptance of our neurotype.

    Also, this sample size is miniscule, and that could likely be because autistic adults are less likely to be willing to participate in studies that don't clearly state their aims.

  • Im an autistic adult and while my autistic partner is worse than average at this, he also Seems to have some level of face blindness, as many autistics do. I actually think i am at the other extreme and i pick up the most subtle differences in expression, even more than neurotypicals

  • There's more than "can and can't" in every level of life. I refer to the way NTs think as linear. They have to be taught different perspectives whereas we NDs just seem to have that basic concept ingrained in our psyches. As such, when NTs evaluate us, their perspective is linear falling in a "one or the other" category.

    I think the other comments touched on this. It's not that "we can't"; it's that there's face blindness, reading other cues NTs don't typically pick up on so we are ignoring their expressions as we sense it's a cover, other thoughts in the forefront keeping our main focus,etc.

    When we look at others, we see a reflection of who we are. If you think in a linear fashion, you perceive in a linear fashion. If you think in an interconnected fashion, you perceive in an interconnected fashion.

    It's hard to explain how there's actually trillions of roads to those who can only see two; especially when you need them to see how those roads connect to understand.

  • New theories discuss how the social deficits we sometimes experience may be not an impairment in reading body language (I agree that we often read between the lines and see the intentions underneath more accurately than NT's) but in prediction because we cannot always quickly process the interaction that is happening and how it feels to the other person/how we are coming across to him/her and predict how the individual will respond. Very interesting idea.

  • As the grandmother of a young adult with autism and retired worker in the field of developmental disabilities, I greatly appreciate the previous comments and self advocacy and disclosure..

  • I agree with all previous comments and wish to add this: the scientific community is only just beginning to recognize that autistic people are not uniquely incapable of socializing, but rather that autistic people socialize more adeptly with other autistics, and that on the flip side ALLISTIC people socialize more adeptly with other ALLISTICS. The social "disability" is comparable on either side when intermixed. Then I ask, whose expressions were participants analyzing, autistics or allistics? I'm curious what difference that might make.

  • I think a lot of the time those of us on the spectrum are so used to masking, we recognize that all people are masking to some degree much of the time. The "delay" in reporting what emotion someone is expressing is in part to us trying to sus out what the person is *actually * feeling vrs what they are attempting to *present* they are feeling. This is why when you find someone who isn't masking and who doesn't need you to mask yourself, it is so much easier. Half the amount of social energy is required to interact with that person and it's easy. Why don't these studies ask autistic people what we think of things instead of just observing us through a neurotypical lense and trying to fit what we are doing into that framework? Not all of us can communicate, but many of us can. Why not just ask us?

  • As an autistic adult with an autistic husband and children, I agree with all previous comments and want to state that I LOVE the comments given by other autistic adults. I love how much more our voices are being heard but especially USED with out fear 💪

Flinders University

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