Friday, July 20, 2012

Why do (some) autistic kids struggle to recognise faces?

Faces are essentially very similar: two eyes above a nose and a mouth. Yet most people are really good at noticing subtle differences between faces, and interpreting accurately. This helps enormously with social interaction: we can tell who they are, if we know them, we can also tell if they are male or female, roughly what age they are, and what that person might be feeling.In autism, deficits processing facial expressions are widely acknowledged, but there is an increasing amount of evidence for impaired facial identity recognition from scientific studies as well as personal anecdotes.Several years ago I worked as an ABA therapist for a little girl, Clare (not her real name). She was profoundly autistic and her quirky ways and bounding energy made her popular with her classmates. Despite her popularity Clare was always getting the names of the other children mixed up. She was unconcerned by her mistakes and paid little attention to repeated corrections. But we were a little worried, figuring that after a while the other kids might be offended that she still couldn’t identify them. So, in an attempt to protect her social reputation, her mother took a photograph of each child and we Clare and I played various ‘who’s this?’ games. She did get better at naming the photographs. But I’m not sure she ever actually got better at naming the kids in real life.