Popular culture

Most adults with autism can recognize facial emotions almost as well as those without

Difficulties in social communication and interaction are considered core features of autism. There is a common perception that people with autism cannot recognize the emotions of others and have little idea how effectively they do so.

We’re used to seeing these challenges portrayed in popular culture, like TV shows The Good Doctor, Atypical, or Love on the Spectrum. And there are exercises and therapies people with autism could do with a psychologist or speech therapist to try to help them improve this important social skill.

Yet the research results are confusing. Some studies have very small sample sizes, others do not control for cognitive abilities. 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 answers. Studies designed in this way do not capture the dynamic demands of everyday social interactions.

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

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Two matched groups

For our research, led by then-PhD student Dr. Marie Georgopoulos, myself, Professor Robyn Young, and postdoctoral researcher Dr. Carmen Lucas, we studied a relatively large sample of 67 adult participants with autism and 67 adults without IQ-matched autism. We presented them with several examples of 12 different types of facial emotions captured not only in still photographs, but also filmed in the context of social interactions. Participants were then able to give open reports about the emotions they saw.

Several key conclusions emerged. First, the type of emotion, the way the stimuli were presented, and the response format all affected the accuracy and speed of emotion recognition. But these variations did not affect the differences between the responses of the autistic and non-autistic groups.

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

Third, participants with autism responded more slowly, but again there was considerable overlap between the two groups. Although slower responses to the emotions of others may hinder social interactions, our study suggests that people with autism were likely simply acting more cautiously in the lab.

Further research could examine how people with autism react after recognizing the emotion in others.

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

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Difficult beliefs

These findings challenge some common perceptions about adults with autism’s ability to recognize others’ emotions and their understanding of their emotional processing. The results also demonstrate the previously unrecognized abilities of many autistic people and remind us that adults with autism are not all the same.

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

For example, our findings may underestimate autistic people’s difficulties in processing their emotions. These difficulties may only appear in the tumult of real interactions with others.

We will therefore have 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 require not only the processing of faces, but also gestures and tone of voice or emphasis at the same time.

In The Good Doctor, Freddie Highmore plays an autistic doctor.

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The impact of autism

Future research will also need to focus more on how people with autism respond to the emotions of others. Perhaps they can recognize emotions but react in a way that could compromise the effectiveness of their social exchanges?

We conducted further research to explore autistic and non-autistic adults’ perceptions of appropriate ways to respond to different emotions displayed by others. This is just one dimension of what is often called the “empathic response” – knowing what might be considered an appropriate reaction to another person who is, for example, sad, angry or frustrated. However, sensing what an appropriate response is and then performing that action, or even being motivated to do so, does not necessarily go hand in hand.

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