Autistic Adults and recognizing facial emotions

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ASPartOfMe
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03 Aug 2022, 9:17 am

Most adults with autism can recognise facial emotions almost as well as those without the condition

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Difficulties with social communication and interaction are considered core features of autism. There is a common perception autistic people are poor at recognizing others' emotions and have little insight into how effectively they do so.

We are used to seeing these challenges portrayed in popular culture, such as television shows The Good Doctor, Atypical or Love on the Spectrum. And there are exercises and therapies autistic people might do with a psychologist or speech pathologist to try to help them improve at this important social skill.

Yet, the research findings are messy. Some studies have very small sample sizes, others do not control for cognitive ability. Some studies only show participants a limited range of emotions to respond to. Some rely heavily on static images of face expressions or only require multiple-choice responses. Studies designed this way don't 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.

For our research, conducted by then doctoral student Dr. Marie Georgopoulos, myself, Professor Robyn Young and post-doctoral researcher Dr. Carmen Lucas, we studied a relatively large sample of 67 IQ-matched autistic and 67 non-autistic adult participants. We presented them with multiple examples of 12 different face emotion types captured not only in still photographs but also videoed in the context of social interactions. Participants were then able to give open-ended reports of the emotions they saw.

Several key findings emerged. First, emotion type, the way in which the stimuli were presented and the format for providing responses all affected accuracy and speed of emotion recognition. But those variations didn't affect the differences between autistic and non-autistic groups' responses.

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

Third, the autistic participants responded more slowly, but again there was considerable overlap between the two groups. Although slower responses to others' emotions might impede social interactions, our study suggests autistic people were probably just acting more cautiously in the laboratory setting.

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

These findings challenge some common perceptions about autistic adults' ability to recognize others' emotions and their insight into their processing of emotions. The findings also demonstrate previously unacknowledged capabilities of many autistic people and remind us that autistic adults are not all the same.

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

Future research will also need a greater focus on how autistic people respond to others' emotions. Perhaps they can recognize emotions but respond in ways that might compromise the effectiveness of their social exchanges?


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klanka
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03 Aug 2022, 9:38 am

I would agree with that. I'd say the problem is knowing how to respond when the other person is feeling a certain way.



Peter A.
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04 Aug 2022, 4:05 am

I recognise facial expressions, but the problem is that quite often the expressions shown don't actually mean what we've all been led to believe they mean. For example, a smile may not necessarily mean the person is happy to see you; they may be trying to lull you into a false sense of security, of trust, so that they can then take advantage of you. The NT world is a bizarre place without any discernible rules, and duplicity seems to be the norm among those people, which is why I do not, and never will, trust them.



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04 Aug 2022, 4:09 am

I agree. Its quite interesting when someone smiles at you but they fail to realise that their smile isn't quite matching what the rest of them are saying.

Also I grimace a lot if I'm on a hard bike ride and I've had NT people approach me saying: I saw you this morning smiling away when you was on your bike.

I have immediately corrected them by telling them that it was grimace.

So I reckon confusion with facial expressions is a more common issue.


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Dear_one
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04 Aug 2022, 11:32 am

I get most of my information from body language. There is less hazard of seeing eyes in it.



goatfish57
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04 Aug 2022, 2:19 pm

I kind of see a flaw with the study. Looking intently at an image, still or video, is very different than reading a person in a social setting. There is sensory overload, anxiety, and fear that must be dealt with. Not to mention making conversation and figuring out what the person is saying. To me, this is a vast multi-tasking nightmare.

As an observer, I can read the faces, and respond with the proper face, voice, or body language. This I have improved over the years, with much effort. But, in a social setting, I am hopelessly outgunned.


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Edna3362
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04 Aug 2022, 7:24 pm

Yes.
In my case, just because I know what and how someone feels, that doesn't necessarily mean I know what to do with it.


I tend to hear tones first before anything else, and usually it's enough information to me before looking at any faces.


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lostonearth35
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04 Aug 2022, 7:29 pm

I've been drawing cartoons for years and put a lot of effort into making them expressive, so it's not like I can't read expressions at all.



Dear_one
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04 Aug 2022, 9:26 pm

lostonearth35 wrote:
I've been drawing cartoons for years and put a lot of effort into making them expressive, so it's not like I can't read expressions at all.


I'm amazed at how much expression XKCD gets with just stick figures. Calvin and Hobbes had great action, too. I tried a simple "how to draw cartoons" instruction, and was amazed at how easy it was to generate expression, even without an outline for the head, which is where I would usually start, with dismal results, neither realistic nor expressive.