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Facial Emotion Recognition and Visual Search Strategies of Children with High Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome

Thursday, 2 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
D. Leung1, T. Falkmer1, M. Falkmer1 and A. Ordqvist2, (1)Curtin University, Perth, Australia, (2)Linköping University, Linköping, Sweden
Background: Poor emotion recognition impacts on a person’s ability to self-regulate, and relate to and interact with others; thus, restricting their occupational engagement and social participation. For example, issues with recognising emotions in children and adolescents have been linked with difficulties in managing the social and academic demands of the school environment. Adults with high functioning autism (HFA) and Asperger syndrome (AS) are often less able to identify facially expressed emotions, and tend to rely less on information from the eye area and attend more often to the mouth when recognising emotions. However, results regarding emotion recognition abilities in children with HFA/AS remain equivocal.  

Objectives: The objective was to add to the current knowledge base regarding emotion recognition in people with HFA/AS across the lifespan, by comparing the emotion recognition ability and visual search strategies of children with HFA/AS, aged 8 – 12 years, with that of matched controls.  

Methods: The emotion recognition ability and visual search strategies of 26 children with HFA/AS, aged 8 – 12 years, and their matched controls were compared. An eye tracker measured the number of fixations and fixation durations as participants were shown 12 pairs of slides, which displayed photos of faces expressing one of three basic emotional expressions – anger, happiness or surprise. The first slide of each pair showed a face broken up into puzzle pieces. The eyes in half of the puzzle piece slides were bisected, while those in the remaining half were whole. The second slide showed three alternative faces, expressing each of the aforementioned emotions. Participants identified which of the alternative faces was expressing the same emotion shown in the preceding puzzle piece slide.

Results: No differences between the participant groups were found for either emotion recognition ability or number of fixations. Fixation durations were longer in the group with HFA/AS than the controls.  

Conclusions: Both groups fixated more often on the eyes and performed better when the eyes were whole, suggesting that both children with HFA/AS and controls consider the eyes to be the most important source of information during emotion recognition. Longer fixation durations indicate that while children with HFA/AS may be able to accurately recognise emotions, they find the task more demanding.

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