March 26, 2007 -- Autistic children may be able to read people's emotions from their facial expressions, new research shows.
Their findings counter previous studies showing that autism hampers children's ability to interpret facial expressions.
Elisa Back worked on the study while earning her PhD at England's University of Nottingham. Back is now a research fellow in psychology at England's University of Birmingham.
Back and colleagues videotaped an actress as she made facial expressions for emotions including surprise, worry, relief, and disapproval.
Back's team showed the video clips to 18 children with autism and 18 children without autism. All of the children were 10-15 years old.
After watching the clips, the children got a list of two emotions and picked the emotion they had seen on the actress' face.
Reading Facial Expressions
The autistic children were able to gauge the actress' emotions from her facial expressions, though not as accurately as the children without autism.
Next, the researchers digitally manipulated the clips to only show the actress' eyes. In that test, all of the children were equally skilled at reading the actress' expressions, regardless of autism.
"Previous findings show that children and adolescents with autism may have difficulty reading mental states from facial expressions, but our results suggest that this is not due to an inability to interpret information from the eyes," Back says in a news release.
The study has some limits. The tests weren't timed, so the results don't show whether autistic children were faster or slower than children without autism in making their judgments.
Also, the results might have been different if the kids had to pick the portrayed emotions without a list of choices, Back's team notes.