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A study from the University of Bristol confirms that it’s harder for children on the autism spectrum to understand emotions behind facial expressions.
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Helping autistic children navigate emotional understanding

While children on the autism spectrum have a hard time recognizing the emotions behind facial expressions, so do children without an autism diagnosis, an English study shows.

In a test by researchers at the University of Bristol, investigators showed 127 children, including 63 with an autism diagnosis, a panel of faces displaying various forms and intensities of emotion. The results confirmed that young people on the autism spectrum had difficulty recognizing the difference between emotions such as “fear” and “surprise” and between “disgust” and “anger.”

The results, however, showed that mistakes made by autistic children in those cases were similar to mistakes made by young people without autism. The biggest differences between the groups involved recognizing emotions behind the clearest “high-intensity” expressions, the authors noted. But even then, some results were similar.

“For fear,” for example, the researchers wrote, “accuracy was low in both groups, even at the higher intensity levels.”

What the research tells us about children with autism

For the researchers, the key finding was the confirmation that children with autism were less able to recognize emotions from facial cues. Previous research on the question was mixed, they said.

“We used an online platform to run a larger study to answer this question more conclusively and found that individuals with autism are on average a bit less accurate at recognizing emotion from faces,” said Sarah Griffiths, one of the authors.

Added Professor Christopher Jarrold of the University of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology, “For those who do struggle with recognizing emotions from faces, teaching emotion recognition may be helpful for learning to navigate social situations.”

The researchers went further and created a tool to help those who work with young people on the autism spectrum. It’s a free iPad app called “About face emotion recognition,” and it’s available on iTunes.

The Bristol researchers say the app is intended for educational professionals who work with children with autism but that it’s also useful for parents with children at home.

Statistics, symptoms, diagnoses and treatments

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a panoply of resources for people with autism and for those who live or work with them.

According to the CDC, about 1 in 68 children is estimated to be on the autism spectrum. In many cases, genetic histories and family circumstances seem to play a role.

Depending on a person’s degree of autism, the CDC says signs and symptoms may include:

  • Not pointing at objects, such as an airplane, to show interest
  • Not looking at an object another person points to
  • Avoiding eye contact and wanting to be alone
  • Having difficulty talking about feelings or understanding other people’s feelings
  • Repeating or echoing words and phrases
  • Having trouble adapting to changes in a routine
  • Appearing unaware when people speak to them, even when responsive to other sounds

Providence has resources to help those living with autism. You can find a Providence provider near you in our directory.

A study from the University of Bristol confirms that it’s harder for children on the autism spectrum to understand emotions behind facial expressions.