Subtle Differences in Explicit Facial Identity and Facial Expression Recognition in Young Adults with ASD

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
S. Vettori1,2, C. Dillen1,2, H. Op de Beeck3, J. Steyaert1,2 and B. Boets1,2, (1)Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium, (2)Leuven Autism Research consortium (LAuRes), KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium, (3)Laboratory of Biological Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

Fluently recognizing faces and facial expressions is highly important for our social interactions. Impaired and atypical face processing have often been postulated as a key deficit in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Despite the great amount of research on face identity and facial expression recognition in ASD, the results are mixed. This is partly because many studies included a relatively small sample of participants and administered only a single face processing task.


Therefore, our goal is to examine face identity and facial expression recognition in a substantial sample of young adults with ASD and matched typical control subjects, assessed with a battery of explicit face processing tests targeting identity and emotion recognition via matching and memory tasks. In addition, we will investigate mutual associations between face processing performance, and associations with self-reported autism characteristics and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Methods:  26 high-functioning young men with ASD and 26 male healthy control subjects without any psychiatric disorder completed computerized versions of the Benton Facial Recognition Test (BFRT), the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), the Emotion Recognition Index (ERI) and the Emotion Recognition Task (ERT). In addition to verbal, performal and total IQ, clinical assessments included ADOS and self-report questionnaires assessing quantitative autism characteristics (Social Responsiveness Scale, SRS), symptoms of depression (Beck Depression Inventory) and symptoms of anxiety (State-Trait Anxiety Inventory).


Results on both face identity recognition tasks (CFMT and BFRT) showed that there were no main group differences in performance between ASD and control subjects. However, on the CFMT, adults with ASD were more hindered by increasing task difficulty through increasing noise and tended to perform worse than controls.  Further, we found no group differences on average accuracy on both facial expression recognition tasks (ERI and ERT).  Yet, individuals with ASD needed more time to provide correct answers on the ERI.  In the presentation we will further expand these results by showing correlations between face processing performance and symptom severity and IQ scores.


We examined a series of face processing abilities with widely used standardized tests. Overall, we found no obvious group differences in face identity recognition and facial expression recognition performance in this sample of adults with ASD versus controls. None of the tests showed an overall group difference, but results on the ERI and the CFMT suggest that subjects with ASD memorize facial identity slightly less accurately and process facial expressions slightly more slowly. In sum, this study indicates that explicit face processing abilities are fairly intact in men with ASD. However, this finding does not rule out that altered face processing is still a key deficit in ASD. If the nature of this deficit is implicit, than the widely used task tapping explicit face processing may give an incomplete estimate of face processing abilities in ASD.