Research on Recognizing Facial Emotion Expressions Could Change Our Understanding of Autism

Summary: Autism-associated social difficulties may reflect differences that only become apparent in high-pressure scenarios and certain social interactions. The findings challenge the belief that those with ASD can’t adequately read facial emotional expressions.

Source: Flinders University

There’s a common perception that autistic individuals are poor at recognising others’ emotions and have little insight into how effectively they do so.

But Autistic adults are only slightly less accurate at reading people’s facial emotions compared to their non-autistic peers, according to new Australian research.

Recent research published in two papers in the leading international journal, Autism Research, shows we may need to revise widely accepted notions that adults diagnosed with autism experience difficulties when it comes to recognising social emotions and have little insight into their processing of others’ face emotions.

63 people diagnosed with autism and 67 non-autistic adults (with IQs ranging from 85 to 143) participated in a Flinders University study, with participants taking part in 3- 5-hour sessions comparing their recognition of 12 human face emotion expressions such as anger and sadness.

Dr Marie Georgopoulos collected a wide range of data during the course of her PhD, with subsequent reanalyses by the research team providing the basis for a series of research articles.

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 recognising specific emotions.”

This shows different expressions on emojis
But Autistic adults are only slightly less accurate at reading people’s facial emotions compared to their non-autistic peers, according to new Australian research. Image is in the public domain

There was a 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 behaviours associated with emotion recognition and reactions to others’ emotions in real-life interactions or perhaps in virtual reality settings.”

About this autism research news

Author: Yaz Dedovic
Source: Flinders University
Contact: Yaz Dedovic – Flinders University
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Facing up to others’ emotions: No evidence of autism-related deficits in metacognitive awareness of emotion recognition” by Marie Georgopoulos et al. Autism Research


Facing up to others’ emotions: No evidence of autism-related deficits in metacognitive awareness of emotion recognition

Emotion recognition difficulties are considered to contribute to social-communicative problems for autistic individuals and awareness of such difficulties may be critical for the identification and pursuit of strategies that will mitigate their adverse effects.

We examined metacognitive awareness of face emotion recognition responses in autistic (N = 63) and non-autistic (N = 67) adults across (a) static, dynamic and social face emotion stimuli, (b) free- and forced-report response formats, and (c) four different sets of the six “basic” and six “complex” emotions.

Within-individual relationships between recognition accuracy and post-recognition confidence provided no indication that autistic individuals were poorer at discriminating correct from incorrect recognition responses than non-autistic individuals, although both groups exhibited marked inter-individual variability.

Although the autistic group was less accurate and slower to recognize emotions, confidence-accuracy calibration analyses provided no evidence of reduced sensitivity on their part to fluctuations in their emotion recognition performance. Across variations in stimulus type, response format and emotion, increases in accuracy were associated with progressively higher confidence, with similar calibration curves for both groups.

Calibration curves for both groups were, however, characterized by overconfidence at the higher confidence levels (i.e., overall accuracy less than the average confidence level), with the non-autistic group contributing more decisions with 90%–100% confidence.

Comparisons of slow and fast responders provided no evidence of a “hard-easy” effect—the tendency to exhibit overconfidence during hard tasks and underconfidence during easy tasks—suggesting that autistic individuals’ slower recognition responding may reflect a strategic difference rather than a processing speed limitation.

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