Recognition of Facial Expressions and Autism Spectrum Disorders

By Marlena N. Smith

In a recent study, Farran, Branson, and King found children with high functioning autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and children with Asperser’s Disorder to show impairments in recognizing facial expressions conveying fear, anger, and sadness. Amygdala has been identified as the region of the brain that processes negative or threatening emotions including fear, anger, and sadness. It has also been speculated that the amygdala may function atypically in persons with ASD. Farran et al. set out to explore the ability of persons with ASD to recognize various facial expressions including fear, anger, sadness, surprise, disgust, and happiness.

Three groups of children participated in the study. Twenty males with high functioning ASD or Asperger’s Disorder diagnoses were matched on chronological age with 20 males with typical development. Furthermore, the participants with ASD were matched on verbal and non-verbal skills with an additional 20 males with typical development. All participants completed tasks in which they were given a specific emotion and asked to identify the appropriate corresponding facial expression within a group of expressions. The task was intended to resemble locating a ‘face in the crowd.’ Responses were evaluated according to accuracy and response time.

No differences were found been the groups in regards to accuracy of responses; however, the participants with ASD were found to be significantly slower in identifying fearful, angry, and sad facial expressions in comparison to the participants with typical development matched on chronological age. No differences in response time were identified between the participants with ASD and the participants with typical development matched on verbal and non-verbal skills. Furthermore, no differences were identified between the groups in the recognition of facial expressions conveying happiness, disgust, and surprise.

When compared to same aged, typically developing peers, children with ASD were found to show impairments in the recognition of facial expressions conveying fear, anger and sadness. These findings appear to support the theory that the amygdala functions atypically in persons with ASD. Further research investigating the recognition of facial expressions in persons with ASD is warranted.


Farran, E. K., Branson, A., & King, B. J. (2011). Visual search for basic emotional expressions in autism; impaired processing of anger, fear and sadness, but a typical happy face advantage. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.


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