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Your Lips, Your Eyes, Your Face!    
Jim Tanaka, University of Victoria

Quick! Visualize the face of your favorite movie star. What features come most readily to mind? Is it the eyes, the mouth or perhaps, even the nose? Vision scientists have long believed that the eyes play a bigger role in recognition than other facial features. However, this eye advantage might not be true for everyone. In a recent study, TDLC researchers Jim Tanaka and Robert Schultz found that children with autism perceive faces based on their mouth and their eye features. In their task, typically developing children and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were shown two faces that were identical except their eyes or mouth features (see Figure). Typically developing children demonstrated the usual eye bias and were more accurate to spot differences in the eyes than the mouth. In contrast, children with ASD performed more poorly than typically developing children on the eyes. Strikingly, they performed as well as typical children in their ability to detect differences in the mouth region. These findings suggest that children with ASD attend to both mouth and eyes features when recognizing faces. Why might children with ASD use a different face strategy than other children? If the eyes are viewed as socially threatening, it seems plausible that individuals with ASD will be biased to look more at the lower, mouth region of the face. These findings provide valuable clues for developing effective interventions intended to enhance the face processing skills of children with ASD, such as the TDLC’s funded Let’s Face It! program.

Wolf, J. M., Tanaka, J. W., Klaiman, C., Cockburn, J., Herlihy, L., Brown, C., South, M., McPartland, J., Kaiser, M. D., Phillips, R. & Schultz, R. T. (in press).
Specific impairment of face processing abilities in children with autism spectrum disorder using the Let’s Face It! Skills Battery, Autism Research.