Autism Facial Expressions: Why Recognising Emotions With ASD Is Hard

Happy smiling child
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Understanding facial impressions make social interactions between people easier. It is one of the ways we understand other people’s feelings, emotional expressions, and intentions. A frown might display empathy, while a smile conveys interest.

However, this can be hard for children and even adults with autism. This is because they often find it hard to read the tiny clues that a facial emotion expression gives – things like tone of voice, posture, and gestures. Autistic and normal adults & children usually have very different facial expressions.

In such cases, people with autistic traits might not be able to read the situation and/or understand how someone else might be feeling. This makes social interactions much more challenging.

Why Is It Hard For Children With Autism To Identify Facial Expressions?

Boy with autism

The root of the problem might lie in the different ways that autistic children process spontaneous facial expressions. Autistic brains tend to take in all the details present in a scene, and this can make it hard to focus on facial expressions specifically.

The child might also have trouble understanding the emotional meaning behind certain emotional facial expressions.

Another theory put across by Dr. Judith Piggot, Director, UCLA Autism Evaluation Clinic is that children with autistic traits, sometimes, do have the ability to understand faces, but do not find the process quite rewarding. So they simply do not bother. This lack of interest makes it difficult for them to develop relationships in the long run.

A group of researchers from Tohoku University has studied how this happens, through a neural network model which reproduces the human brain as a computer.

Children with a high autism spectrum quotient recognize multiple emotions like anger and sadness by observing facial expressions. However, children with autistic disorders have atypical neural networks, which makes it more difficult for them to identify the same emotions from facial expressions.

High-functioning autism (HFA) is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by superior intelligence and verbal skills compared to the average human.

The researchers think that this might be one of the reasons that an autistic person has trouble understanding and responding to other people’s simple and complex emotions, interrupting their facial expression recognition.

Some other reasons why children with autism spectrum disorder find it difficult to identify facial expressions include:

  • They might not pay attention to faces as much as other people do. This is because they are more interested in objects and might find social interactions overwhelming.
  • They might have difficulty understanding the concept of emotions. Emotions are complex and can be hard to understand, even for neurotypical children.
  • They might have difficulty understanding the connection between facial expressions and emotions. For children with autism, facial expressions might just be another physical movement, without any emotional meaning.

Problems Faced By Autistic Children Not Recognizing Facial Expressions

Two Kids on Playground

As mentioned before, one of the reasons autistic children have trouble making friends is because they cannot pick up on social cues from other people’s facial expressions. This might lead to them feeling left out and isolated.

They might also get anxious or stressed in social situations because they cannot interpret other people’s emotions. This can be very overwhelming for a child with autism.

Autistic children who cannot recognize facial expressions might also find it difficult to express their own emotions. This is because they might not be able to understand what emotions they are feeling, or how to express them.

How Can We Help Children With Autism Recognize Facial Expressions?

Consider the different ways in which you recognize the emotions of others in your everyday life. Do you focus on their body language? Or their facial expression? Or their voice tone? While most of us do these every day without thinking twice, children with autism find it difficult to recognize the emotions of others or convey their own.

Educators and children often find that children with autism tend to display inappropriate behaviors due to their problems in communicating or recognizing emotions.

For instance, a child might have tantrums that get easily triggered, they might become withdrawn and even more aggressive.

Thus, they must be familiar with the various ways to help their children can improve facial emotion recognition.

Helping autistic children recognize facial expressions

little girl crying

For starters, to help children recognize facial expressions, encourage them to practice identifying expressions in an environment that does not have much pressure as compared to the real social situation.

The absence of pressure will help instill confidence in them. Little emotional cues in identifying them can be very helpful.

This also allows them to focus on learning the skill, rather than the surrounding environment as well. Once they have started to recognize facial expressions, then we can practice it in different environments.

Eye movements and eye contacts

Image of young kid staring at you with reflection her face on table

Eye contacts and movements are very important in deciphering facial expressions. When the child is looking at the person’s eyes, he or she can see the changes in pupil size and blinking rate.

This will give an indication of the emotions that the other person is feeling. Encourage your child to make as much or as little eye contact as possible to understand dynamic facial expressions.

Older children with autistic spectrum disorders can do this better by remapping the features of the face. This means that they would be able to identify different parts of the face and remember how each part changes when different emotions are expressed.

Use facial expression flashcards

You can also use flashcards with facial expressions to help the child better understand and identify emotions. There are many resources that you can find online or in stores. You can make your own flashcards as well.

These flashcards might include facial expressions on a character or real-life pictures. For children on the autism spectrum disorder, they may benefit from practicing with real-life pictures on flashcards. This allows them to recognize human facial expression for each emotion.

Role-playing

Funny stare

Role-playing is another great way to help children with autism spectrum disorders understand facial expressions. Acting out different scenarios will give them a better idea of how certain emotions are expressed.

For instance, you can act out a happy scene and a sad scene to help them understand the difference.

Choose activities that are age-appropriate

Not all children learn the same way, so it is important that you provide activities that are tailored to their individual needs and their respective ages.

Choose activities that will help them understand neutral facial expressions in a way that is comfortable for them. Do not force them to do something that they are not interested in or might find difficult.

Provide visual supports

Visual supports are very important when it comes to teaching autistic children about facial expressions. These can be anything from charts with pictures to videos that show different emotions being expressed.

Focus on one emotion at a time

When you are teaching your child about facial expressions, it is important that you focus on one emotion at a time. This will help them better understand and remember the different facial expressions. You can start with the basic emotions such as happy, sad, angry, and scared.

Consider teaching them emotions outdoors

Teach your child or autistic people about facial expressions is by taking them outdoors. This will provide them with a natural and stimulating environment that will be very helpful in their learning process.

This is particularly helpful for those who are movement seekers and require additional movements to stay focused on the task. In this environment, you can demonstrate emotional expressions and the child can run to allocated spaces to indicate what emotion they think you are expressing. For example, you might have four hula hoops on the floor with the four basic emotions. The children might start in the middle of the four hula hoops and then once they recognize the emotion, they need to jump inside the hula hoop.

Ask your child to name the emotional facial expressions

One simple but effective way to help your child understand facial expressions is by asking them to name the emotions that they see. This will help them better remember the different facial expressions and the emotions that they represent.

Doing this will introduce your child to emotion vocabulary and help them connect the word to complex emotions. You can do this even while you are watching a movie, reading a book or playing outside.

Make learning emotion recognition engaging and fun

If you make learning about facial expressions fun and engaging, the child will be more interested in it. You can do this by incorporating games, activities, and rewards into the learning process. This will keep the child motivated and encouraged to learn more.

In order to help children with autism identify different facial expressions, one must keep in mind that every autistic child is different. What works for one might not work for another. Be patient and keep trying new methods to see what helps your child the most while understanding emotions through their autistic expressions.

Conclusion

There are many ways that you can help your child with autism learn about subtle expressions. It is important to be patient and to find activities that are comfortable for them. Keep in mind that every autistic child is different, so what works for one might not work for another. Be creative and have fun while teaching your child about facial expressions.

Resources:

DeWeerdt, S. (2019, February 20). People with autism sometimes give ambiguous looks. Spectrum. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/people-autism-sometimes-give-ambiguous-looks/

Why people with autism read facial expressions differently. Neuroscience News. (2021, August 5). Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://neurosciencenews.com/aans-asd-facial-expression-19065/

Salvatore, K. (n.d.). Helping children with autism to communicate & recognize emotions. Autism Resources and Community (ARC). Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://blog.stageslearning.com/blog/teaching-children-with-autism-about-emotions

How to teach emotion recognition and labelling to children with autism. LuxAI S.A. (2021, December 17). Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://luxai.com/blog/emotion-recognition-for-autism/#activities

Los Angeles Times. (2009, April 13). Teaching autistic kids to read facial expressions. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 15, 2022, from https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2009-apr-13-he-autism13-story.html

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