“The face is the index of the mind,” according to an ancient proverb. People with autism, however, are often unable to judge when a face conveys emotions such as happiness or sadness, and many researchers take this as evidence that autism involves serious deficits in processing social information. Yet the voice, too, can provide emotional cues, and several recent studies indicate that when listening to voices, people with autism can actually recognize feelings and other traits of humanness as well as—or even better than—neurotypical people do.
The studies were small and focused exclusively on high-functioning adults with autism, whose abilities are not necessarily representative of the broader autistic population, points out Andrew Whitehouse, head of autism research at Telethon Kids Institute in Australia. And success on a laboratory task does not necessarily translate into success in real-world social interactions, adds Helen Tager-Flusberg, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University. Nevertheless, the studies suggest that at least for some subgroups of autistic people in certain situations, deficits in identifying emotions could be confined primarily to vision.
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