Facial Recognition Ability Predicts Autism SeverityDifficulty with social situations is a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with ASD, in particular, struggle to recognize faces and interpret emotions. A new study finds that children who struggle the most with facial recognition have more severe autism symptoms as teenagers. The researchers suggest that problems with facial recognition may explain why people with ASD find social situations difficult.

The researchers measured the face and emotion recognition abilities of 87 children with ASD, aged 6 to 12 years. During ‘face recognition’ and ‘emotion recognition’ tests, both computer-based, the researchers evaluated the children’s speed and accuracy. For each test, the children saw a face on screen for 2.5 seconds. In the face recognition test, the children saw an expressionless face and were then asked to identify the face from a set of four images. In the emotion recognition test, the children saw a face depicting an emotion—happiness, sadness, anger, or fear—and were then asked to identify the emotion.

In addition to the face and emotion recognition tests, the researchers administered the Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale (ADOS) at the study outset and seven years later, when the participants were teenagers.

Problems with facial recognition in childhood predict autism severity during adolescence. The children with less accurate scores on the face recognition test had more severe autism symptoms as teenagers. This pattern held even after the researchers adjusted for autism severity in childhood.

Accuracy in the emotion recognition task was not linked to autism severity later on.

The findings suggest that impaired facial recognition may contribute to the social deficits associated with ASD. If so, then it may be possible to improve social skills of people with ASD by helping them learn to recognize faces. The results also fit with current research suggesting that social experiences are not intrinsically rewarding for people with ASD.

The study may lead to new methods for identifying children at-risk for developing ASD.

This research is published in the journal Autism Research.

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