Teaching Kids with ASD to Read FacesPeople with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle to interpret emotions conveyed through facial expressions. Past studies have examined the use of computer-based treatments to teach people with ASD to understand facial expressions. Unfortunately, these attempts saw only limited success. A new study from the Institute for Autism Research at Canisius College improved one such program to treat children with high-functioning ASD (HFASD). Their enhanced computer-based treatment yielded better emotion-recognition skills for children with HFASD. The findings could lead to more effective computer-based intervention.

The researchers used a piece of emotion-recognition software called Mind Reading, adding more elements to the program to improve its effectiveness. While prior studies using software relied on independent computer training, this study incorporated practice sessions along with the computer program. The children in the study’s treatment group received computer instruction with Mind Reading, repeated practice opportunities with clinical staff, and positive reinforcement for accurately recognizing and expressing facial emotions.

Forty-three children, aged 7 to 12, with HFASD participated in the 12-week study. The 22 children randomly assigned to the treatment group attended two 90-minute treatment sessions each week. The remaining 21 children were put on a waiting list for treatment.

The children in the treatment group demonstrated significant improvements in emotion-recognition skills by the end of the study compared to the children in the control group. The parents of children in the treatment group rated their children significantly better at facial-emotion recognition and expression after the treatment. The treatment group also received much lower parent ratings of the severity of ASD symptoms, including social impairments. This suggests that the treatment impacted symptoms that were not specifically targeted by the treatment program.

The researchers followed up with the participants two months after the study. They found that the treatment group’s gains in emotion recognition and expression persisted after the study ended.

Lead study author Marcus L. Thomeer, Ph.D., co-director of the Institute for Autism Research, explains the study’s promising results. “These findings represent an important step as they suggest that emotion recognition and expression skills of children with HFASD can be significantly improved and autism symptoms and impairments reduced by providing direct instruction, real-life practice opportunities, and reinforcement for accuracy.”

This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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