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Georgetown Study: Autistic Individuals’ Facial Recognition Worsens with Age

Abigail Marsh “Our findings suggest that while neurodevelopmental processes and social experience produce improvements in facial emotion recognition abilities for children without autism, autistic children experience disruptions in these processes,” says Abigail Marsh, associate professor of psychology.

June 13, 2014 – Researchers at Georgetown have found that autistic individuals’ impaired ability to recognize emotional facial expressions worsens over time.

The research, conducted by Abigail Marsh, associate professor of psychology in Georgetown College, and Leah Lozier (G’14), who just received her Ph.D. in neuroscience, recently appeared in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

“Our findings suggest that while neurodevelopmental processes and social experience produce improvements in facial emotion recognition abilities for children without autism, autistic children experience disruptions in these processes,” Marsh explains.

This represents impairment, the researchers say, in the neural architecture involved in face-emotion processing for those with autism.

Early Interventions

“A major take-home message of this research is that impairments in recognizing emotional facial expressions get worse over time,” Lozier says.

The Georgetown researchers found consistent facial emotion recognition deficits – particularly in expressions of anger, fear and surprise – by analyzing more than 40 existing studies of facial-emotion recognition deficits in children and adults with autism.

“Autistic adults have even more trouble recognizing facial expressions than autistic children do,” says Marsh. “Given how important facial expressions are for regulating social interactions, this reinforces the importance of early interventions that may help prevent this gap from widening during development.”

Surprising Lack of Consensus

Marsh says researchers of autism have disagreed on whether the facial expression recognition impairment even exists, and, it if it is real, whether it applies to one or two or many emotions.

“It's surprising how little consensus there has been on autism and its effects on facial expression recognition,” says Marsh, “because difficulties in nonverbal communication are a big part of an autism diagnosis.”

Snowball Effect

Lozier and Marsh also found that because the impairment is most pronounced in adulthood, it might contribute to broader social impairments characterized by inappropriate use of nonverbal cues.

They say their findings underscore the need to develop treatments for autism long before people with autism become adults.

“There is a snowballing effect,” Lozier explains, “which underscores how important it is to develop targeted treatments and interventions for very young children in order to mitigate the developmental consequences before more severe impairments in affect recognition have set in."

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