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Research on facial expressions challenges the way we think about autism

Autism researchers are starting to think that autistic and non-autistic faces may “speak a different language” when conveying emotion. This could mean the “social difficulties” often associated with autism may, at least partly, result from differences in the facial expressions produced by autistic and non-autistic people. It means we may need to re-think the idea that autistic people have difficulties with expressing their emotions and instead consider that non-autistic people may have trouble reading them.

The ability to read facial expressions is an essential part of nonverbal communication. If you only listen to what a person says and cannot read what their face is telling you, then you may only have half the story. Just think about a time when you said you were “fine”, but your facial expression said otherwise.

Being able to read someone’s facial expression is crucial for good interpersonal relations. If you cannot read someone’s facial expression, it could lead to social responses that are not socially advantageous, advisable or “correct”.

If, for instance, you cannot read someone’s sad expression, you may not provide reassurance, words of comfort or a hug. And if you can’t tell that someone is angry with you from their expression, you may not apologise for your actions. In both cases, this could lead to less successful social interactions and greater social difficulty.

A two-way interaction

According to the National Autistic Society, autism (including Asperger syndrome) is a lifelong developmental condition that affects “how a person communicates with and relates to other people” and the world around them. Many studies have shown that autistic people often have difficulties reading the facial expressions of neurotypical (non-autistic) people. Historically, these difficulties have been framed as a characteristic of autism that leads to social problems.

Our newly published paper argues that this view ignores that social interactions are exactly that – an interaction between individuals. Since interactions are necessarily at least two-way, it’s important that we also think about how well neurotypical people read autistic facial expressions.

The findings from two recent studies suggest that many neurotypical people find it difficult to read and interpret the facial expressions and body movements of autistic people.

So why do neurotypical and autistic people struggle to read each other’s facial expressions? One reason could be that autistic and neurotypical people produce different facial expressions.

Differences in facial expressions

While researchers don’t yet know exactly what is different about the facial expressions produced by these groups, our review of the literature suggests that there may be differences in the appearance, frequency and duration of facial expressions. Of course, not all autistic people are the same and there will be some autistic people who make facial expressions that are really similar to neurotypical expressions. However, in general it seems that autistic and neurotypical faces may convey emotion differently.

When feeling sad, for example, an autistic person might move their face into an expression that would not be used by most neurotypical people – per the video below. Because this expression is different from what a neurotypical person may expect to see, they might not recognise that the autistic person is feeling sad.

Similarly, because the neurotypical person expresses their sadness in a different way from the autistic person, the autistic person might not recognise the neurotypical person’s sadness. In both these scenarios, they might fail to comfort each other and appreciate the response.

Why does this matter?

This means that what have previously been thought of as “social deficits” in autistic people may actually reflect a mismatch in the facial expressions produced by autistic and neurotypical people. This is really crucial as it takes the element of blame away from the autistic person and instead proposes that these difficulties are a product of autistic and neurotypical differences.

There may also be some really promising outcomes of these findings. For instance, in the future, caregivers and clinicians could be trained to “read the language” of autistic facial expressions, leading to a reduction in social interaction difficulties. Since research suggests that autistic expressions may be unique to each individual, these support programmes may need to be personalised to each autistic person.

These findings also have implications for the clinical diagnosis of autism. Currently, Autism Spectrum Disorders are diagnosed via observations of social ability and behaviour by a qualified clinician. Importantly, a non-autistic clinician may evaluate someone as lacking in facial expressions, when, in reality, these expressions are just different to the ones they would produce themselves; a different style of emotional expression is falsely interpreted as a lack of emotional expression.

It may be time to reframe the idea of “social difficulties” in autism and shift away from the idea of “deficit” towards one of “difference” between autistic-neurotypical interactions.

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