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Autism and Face Processing

Adolescents with Autism process faces as wholes but are not sensitive to configuration

Isabel Gauthier, Vanderbilt University

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) suffer from complex impairments including deficits in language, communication skills and difficulties with social interactions. ASD is also associated with difficulties recognizing faces. Although it has been suggested that individuals with an ASD process faces less holistically than typically developing controls, very few studies have looked at this question directly. One prior study suggested that individuals with ASD were less sensitive to the misalignment of parts and concluded that face processing in ASD was less "holistic". Isabel Gauthier and Robert Schultz, investigators from the NSF-funded Temporal Dynamics Learning Center (TDLC), together with co-author Cheryl Klaiman, tested adolescents with ASD in an experiment that allowed them to measure separately holistic face processing on the one hand, and whether configuration of face parts mattered, on the other hand. Which of these two factors, or both, would be problematic in ASD? The results were surprising, revealing that individuals with ASD, like control participants, had difficulty ignoring facial features that they were told to ignore. However, while control participants can ignore face parts much better when the configuration of the parts is broken (Figure 1) individuals with ASDs were still unable to ignore irrelevant face parts under these conditions. A comparison of the results with those in a different study (Richler et al., in press) also by TDLC investigators suggests that individuals with ASD may process faces like typical individuals process objects. This work will help scientists to measure face processing deficits in ASD and help them measure the effects of face recognition treatments.

Figure 1. When asked to pay attention to the top of a face, typical adolescents cannot ignore the bottom of the face on the left, but can ignore a bottom part that is misaligned, as in the picture on the right. In this study, adolescents with ASD were unable to ignore face parts in both conditions.
Gauthier, I., Klaiman, C. & Schultz, R.T. (in press). Face composite effects reveal abnormal face processing in Autism. Vision Research.
Richler, J.J., Bukach, C.M., & Gauthier, I. (in press). Context influences holistic processing of non-face objects in the composite task. Perception and Psychophysics.