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Why an Autistic Child Might Perceive Your Face Differently


Researchers share insights into what happens in the brain of a child with autism related to facial recognition.


An autistic child will see your face very differently than an average person, according to new studies. Autism changes the way children act or react, but facial recognition had never before been focused on to explain why certain social cues are left unnoticed.

Innovative in their studies, Cedars-Sinai researchers recording the real-time firing of individual nerve cells in the brain found that a certain neuron in a part of the brain known as the amygdala performed very differently within autistic versus the average children.

What is the amygdala?

  • Essential for decoding emotions
  • Reason we feel fear when threatened
  • Emotional memories associated with fear are found in this area
  • Physical reactions to memories that evoke emotion are because of the amygdala

"Many studies have found that people who have autism fail to focus on the eye region of others to gather social cues and process information about emotions," said Ueli Rutishauser, PhD, assistant professor of neurosurgery and director of Human Neurophysiology Research at Cedars-Sinai.

So what does this mean? When certain cues are not taken into account, the brain does not know the whole story and cannot react accordingly and appropriately. Since the amygdala is in charge of ensuring humans survive by associating fear with certain things, particularly the unknown, it seems that the lack of cues registered might have something to do with increased risky or dangerous behavior.

How did they figure this out?

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Listening in on the particular neurons in question within 2 high-functioning autistic children, researchers presented pictures of people in different emotional states to be identified by the children. The behavior of the neurons, one for whole-face recognition and one for face parts, was then compared to those in children without autism.

The results?

Within the autistic children, neurons looking at the face as a whole responded the same way in both populations, but those associated with recognizing parts of the face were much more active when the patients were shown the mouth compared to when they were shown the eyes.

In conclusion, where autistic children have a harder time focusing on one's eyes, they will most definitely be staring at the mouth. That little fact greatly alters their perception. Mind you, some children might also be getting their senses mixed up.

Tips based on this study:

  • Don't try to warn with just your eyes. Whether you are parent, grandparent or teacher, it is much harder to get your point across with simply the narrowing or flashing of your eyes.
  • Winking at an autistic girl, no matter how high-functioning, will probably not get you your desired result
  • Speak clearly and use your mouth to express how you feel.
  • Train those with autism to try to focus on the eyes as well
  • Make it clear from a young age what different expressions look like on the lips.

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