What is the nature of face processing impairment in autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, characterised by social, imaginative and communicative impairments with unusual/restricted behaviours (APA, 1994). One such impairment is in the ability to process faces. Face processing is essential for one’s social development (Tronick, 1978). It provides vital information, with a core set of facial expressions universally recognised (Ekman, 1999). Research has shown that individuals with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) process faces; they have impaired emotional recognition and abnormal eye fixation. They use different strategies from typically developing (TD) individuals, such as featural processing. Some believe there is a neural basis for this problem; others argue that differences in methodology of testing produce different results. This essay outlines some of these arguments and discusses the nature of face processing impairment in autism.
Very early on, babies preferentially attend to faces. Within a few days, babies can differentiate their mother’s face to that of strangers and have the ability to imitate facial gestures posed by another person (Meltzoff and Moore, 1977; Bushnell et al. 1986). These milestones may vary for ASD individuals.
Studies have confirmed the robustness and universality of the still-face paradigm (Tronick, 1978; Kisilevsky et al, 1998; Segal et al, 1995). However, ASD infants didn’t respond the same when unfamiliar faces were used, failing to form the generalised expectation about a stranger’s social behaviour (Nadel et al, 2000). This can provide an insight into why ASD individuals may avoid strangers, interacting only with close family members (Lord, 1984). It can also explain why face processing impairments may affect social development.
ASD individuals have deficits in facial emotion recognition (Gepner et al, 1996; Hobson et al, 1988). Polijac et al (2000) found that scorers with high autism-spectrum quotients (AQ), which strongly correlate with autism, were less able to identify facial expressions correctly. Furthermore, ASD children performed worse than TD controls when labelling, identifying and finding odd facial and emotional displays (Tantam et al, 1989; Gross, 2004; Hubert et al, 2007). These studies support an impaired perception of facial emotional recognition.
Certain areas of the brain are responsible for face processing, including the fusiform gyrus (FFG), superior temporal sulcus (STS), and amygdala. In TD individuals, studies using fMRI have shown increased activation in the right FFG when exposed to human faces; in comparison to the decreased activation seen in ASD individuals (Kanwisher et al, 1999; Critchley et al, 2000). Furthermore, their FFG contains less GABBA receptors with smaller and fewer neurons (Oblak et al, 2010; Van Kooten et al, 2008). These could contribute to a facial processing deficit.
Brain damaged patients and animal studies have shown that damage or removal of STS can impair eye gaze direction, an important social cue (Akiyama et al, 2006; Campbell et al, 1990). This suggests that a neural basis underlies the face processing deficit in autism, thus causing a social deficit e.g. lack of social interest or impaired theory of mind. (Schultz, 2005; Baron Cohen, 1997).
Amygdala differences can also have an effect. High functioning autistic individuals, who performed poorly on facial recognition tasks and eye gaze, also possessed a larger amygdala. Amygdala size may also affect the severity of symptomatology, thus explaining individual differences (Howard et al, 2000). Some had increased grey matter volume with less activation compared to controls. (Sparks et al, 2002; Baron-Cohen et al, 2000; Abell et al, 1999).
The above studies provide strong evidence that the specific mechanisms for face recognition may be impaired in ASD individuals. These may underlie their social impairments.
ASD individuals use atypical face processing strategies. They do not show inversion effects, like their TD-matched controls, when discriminating, sorting, and identifying inverted faces (O’Brien et al, 2014; Hobson et al, 1988; Langdell, 1978; Tantam et al, 1989). This suggests they are unaffected by the disruption in configural information (Boutsen and Humphreys, 2003).
Consequently, ASD individuals may rely on abnormal alternatives like feature-based strategies, thus resulting in enhanced processing for individual facial aspects (Tantam et al, 1989; Lahaie et al, 2006). They may not develop face expertise, nor process faces as special; rather, they process them in the same manner as objects (Hobson et al, 1988; O’Connor et al, 2005; Schultz, 2000).
ASD individuals have diminished eye region fixation, a strong predictor of autism. They spend twice as long looking at the mouth region, but two times less time on the eye region, compared to controls. (Klin et al, 2002; Yi et al, 2013). ASD individuals focus less on the core internal features of the face and fixate on unimportant external features (Pelphrey et al, 2002; Trepagnier et al, 2002). They look more at the lower half of the face, often developing superior lip reading skills; possibly a compensatory mechanism for other impaired processing strategies (Schultz et al, 2000; Nadel et al, 2000).
Research using eye-tracking data has shown that high risk infants spend longer looking at stimuli of faces relative to other objects, suggesting it takes longer for them to process (Elsabbagh et al, 2013). This may be due to neural abnormalities causing slowed face processing speed (McPartland et al, 2004).
Other factors may be involved. During face discrimination tasks, ASD adults had slower N170 responses; N170 is an ERP component thought to be important for face processing, suggesting a different basis for autism (O’Connor et al, 2005).
Research suggests face processing abilities in ASD individuals may follow a delayed developmental trajectory rather than a deficit. ASD adults performed similarly to TD children. Furthermore, ASD children performed similarly to developmentally delayed children and younger TD children (Greimel et al, 2014; Wilson et al, 2009).
There are some inconsistent findings. For example, Pierce & Redcay (2008) found normal FFG activity in ASD individuals, but only when viewing strangers’ faces were abnormalities present. Stimuli may affect results. Furthermore, some tasks may test memory rather than face processing. This is illustrated by ASD individuals who had worse recognition when faces had to be remembered over a delay than when they did not (Gepner et al, 1966).
Another potential methodological issue is the participants used. The severity of ASD individuals’ symptomatology differs. High functioning and low functioning autistic children both perform differently on face recognition tasks (Joseph and Tanaka, 2003; Wilson et al, 2009). Older ASD individuals may develop atypical strategies and these compensatory strategies may have camouflaged the perception deficit (Klin et al, 2002; Teunisse and de Gelder, 2001). Results using a single 9mm slice or 7mm sagittal slices will affect findings made, so technical differences should be considered (Schultz et al, 2009; Pierce et al, 2001). These factors make it difficult to be conclusive. Findings should be analysed carefully and not generalised.
ASD individuals have impaired facial emotional recognition; they use abnormal strategies in processing faces, including featural processing and abnormal eye fixation which may be compensating for other impaired processing strategies but which may also mask processing deficit. Abnormalities in the brain can impair face processing abilities, although no single region can be solely responsible.
Finally, methodology should be considered when understanding the nature of the face processing impairment in autism.
Abell, F. Krams, M. Ashburner, J. Passingham, R. Friston, K. Frackowiak et al & Frith, U. (1999). The neuroanatomy of autism: a voxel‐based whole brain analysis of structural scans. Neuroreport, 10(8), 1647-1651.
Akiyama, T. Kato, M. Muramatsu, T. Saito, F. Nakachi, R. & Kashima, H. (2006). A deficit in discriminating gaze direction in a case with right superior temporal gyrus lesion. Neuropsychologia, 44(2), 161-170.
Baron-Cohen, S. Ring, H. A. Bullmore, E. T. Wheelwright, S. Ashwin, C. & Williams, S. C. R. (2000). The amygdala theory of autism. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 24(3), 355-364.
Baron-Cohen, S. Wheelwright, S. & Jolliffe, A. T. (1997). Is there a" language of the eyes"? Evidence from normal adults, and adults with autism or Asperger syndrome. Visual Cognition, 4(3), 311-331.
Boutsen, L. & Humphreys, G. W. (2003). The effect of inversion on the encoding of normal and “thatcherized” faces. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 56(6), 955-975.
Bushneil, I. W. R. Sai, F. & Mullin, J. T. (1989). Neonatal recognition of the mother's face. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7(1), 3-15.
Campbell, R. Heywood, C. A. Cowey, A. Regard, M. & Landis, T. (1990). Sensitivity to eye gaze in prosopagnosic patients and monkeys with superior temporal sulcus ablation . Neuropsychologia, 28(11), 1123-1142.
Critchley, H. D. Daly, E. M. Bullmore, E. T. Williams, S. C. Van Amelsvoort, T. Robertson, D. M. ... & Murphy, D. G. (2000). The functional neuroanatomy of social behaviour. Brain, 123(11), 2203-2212.
Ekman, P. (1999). Facial expressions. Handbook of cognition and emotion, 16, 301-320.
Elsabbagh, M. Fernandes, J. Webb, S. J. Dawson, G. Charman, T. Johnson, M. H. & British Autism Study of Infant Siblings Team. (2013). Disengagement of visual attention in infancy is associated with emerging autism in toddlerhood. Biological Psychiatry, 74(3), 189-194.
Gepner, B. Gelder, B. D. & Schonen, S. D. (1996). Face processing in autistics: Evidence for a generalised deficit?. Child Neuropsychology, 2(2), 123-139.
Greimel, E. Schulte-Rüther, M. Kamp-Becker, I. Remschmidt, H. Herpertz-Dahlmann, B. & Konrad, K. (2014). Impairment in face processing in autism spectrum disorder: a developmental perspective. Journal of Neural Transmission, 121(9), 1171-1181.
Gross, T. F. (2004). The perception of four basic emotions in human and nonhuman faces by children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 32(5), 469-480.
Hobson, R. P. Ouston, J. & Lee, A. (1988). What's in a face? The case of autism. British Journal of Psychology, 79(4), 441-453.
Howard, M. A. Cowell, P. E. Boucher, J. Broks, P. Mayes, A. Farrant, A. & Roberts, N. (2000). Convergent neuroanatomical and behavioural evidence of an amygdala hypothesis of autism. Neuroreport, 11(13), 2931-2935.
Hubert, B. Wicker, B. Moore, D. G. Monfardini, E. Duverger, H. Da Fonseca, D. & Deruelle, C. (2007). Brief report: recognition of emotional and non-emotional biological motion in individuals with autistic spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 37(7), 1386-1392.
Joseph, R. M. & Tanaka, J. (2003). Holistic and part‐based face recognition in children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44(4), 529-542.
Kanwisher, N. Stanley, D. & Harris, A. (1999). The fusiform face area is selective for faces not animals. Neuroreport, 10(1), 183-187.
Kisilevsky, B. S. Hains, S. M. Lee, K. Muir, D. W. Xu, F. Fu, G. ... & Yang, R. L. (1998). The still-face effect in Chinese and Canadian 3-to 6-month-old infants. Developmental Psychology, 34(4), 629.
Klin, A. Jones, W. Schultz, R. Volkmar, F. & Cohen, D. (2002). Visual fixation patterns during viewing of naturalistic social situations as predictors of social competence in individuals with autism. A rchives of general psychiatry, 59(9), 809-816.
Lahaie, A. Mottron, L. Arguin, M. Berthiaume, C. Jemel, B. & Saumier, D. (2006). Face perception in high-functioning autistic adults: evidence for superior processing of face parts, not for a configural face-processing deficit. Neuropsychology, 20(1), 30.
Langdell, T. (1978). Recognition of faces: An approach to the study of autism. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 19(3), 255-268.
Lord, C. (1984). Peer relations in autism. In F. J. Morrison, C. Lord, & D. P. Keating (Eds.),Applied developmental psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 165–229). New York: Academic Press.
McPartland, J. Dawson, G. Webb, S. J. Panagiotides, H. & Carver, L. J. (2004). Event‐related brain potentials reveal anomalies in temporal processing of faces in autism spectrum disorder. J ournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 45(7), 1235-1245.
Meltzoff, A. N. & Moore, M. K. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science, 198(4312), 75-78.
Nadel, J. Croué, S. Mattlinger, M. J. Canet, P. Hudelot, C. Lecuyer, C. & Martini, M. (2000). Do children with autism have expectancies about the social behaviour of unfamiliar people? A pilot study using the still face paradigm. Autism, 4(2), 133-145.
O’Brien, J. Spencer, J. Girges, C. Johnston, A. & Hill, H. (2014). Impaired perception of facial motion in autism spectrum disorder.
O’Connor, K. Hamm, J. P. & Kirk, I. J. (2005). The neurophysiological correlates of face processing in adults and children with Asperger’s syndrome. Brain and cognition, 59(1), 82-95.
Oblak, A. L. Gibbs, T. T. & Blatt, G. J. (2010). Decreased GABAB receptors in the cingulate cortex and fusiform gyrus in autism. Journal of neurochemistry, 114(5), 1414-1423.
Pelphrey, K. A. Sasson, N. J. Reznick, J. S. Paul, G. Goldman, B. D. & Piven, J. (2002). Visual scanning of faces in autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 32(4), 249-261.
Pierce, K. & Redcay, E. (2008). Fusiform function in children with an autism spectrum disorder is a matter of “who”. Biological psychiatry, 64(7), 552-560.
Pierce, K. Müller, R. A. Ambrose, J. Allen, G. & Courchesne, E. (2001). Face processing occurs outside the fusiform face area in autism: evidence from functional MRI. Brain, 124(10), 2059-2073.
Poljac, E. Poljac, E. & Wagemans, J. (2013). Reduced accuracy and sensitivity in the perception of emotional facial expressions in individuals with high autism spectrum traits. Autism, 17(6), 668-680.
Schultz, R. T. (2005). Developmental deficits in social perception in autism: The role of the amygdala and fusiform face area. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, 23, 125-141.
Schultz, R. T. Gauthier, I. Klin, A. Fulbright, R. K. Anderson, A. W. Volkmar, F. ... & Gore, J. C. (2000). Abnormal ventral temporal cortical activity during face discrimination among individuals with autism and Asperger syndrome. Archives of general Psychiatry, 57(4), 331-340.
Schulz, K.P. Clerkin, S.M. Halperin, J.M. Newcorn, J.H. Tang, C.Y. Fan, J. 2009. Dissociable neural effects of stimulus valence and preceding context during the inhibition of responses to emotional faces. Hum. Brain Mapp. 30, 2821–2833.
Segal, L. B. Oster, H. Cohen, M. Caspi, B. Myers, M. & Brown, D.. (1995). Smiling and Fussing in Seven-Month-Old Preterm and Full-Term Black Infants in the Still-Face Situation. Child Development, 66(6), 1829–1843.
Sparks, B. F. Friedman, S. D. Shaw, D. W. Aylward, E. H. Echelard, D. Artru, A. A. ... & Dager, S. R. (2002). Brain structural abnormalities in young children with autism spectrum disorder. Neurology, 59(2), 184-192.
Tantam, D. Monaghan, L. Nicholson, H. & Stirling, J. (1989). Autistic children's ability to interpret faces: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 30(4), 623-630.
Teunisse, J. P. & de Gelder, B. (2001). Impaired categorical perception of facial expressions in high-functioning adolescents with autism . Child Neuropsychology, 7(1), 1-14.
Trepagnier, C. Sebrechts, M. M. & Peterson, R. (2002). Atypical face gaze in autism. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 5(3), 213-217.
Tronick, E. Z. Als, H. Adamson, L. Wise, S. & Brazelton, B. (1978). The infants' response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interaction. American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 1, 1-13
van Kooten, I. A. Palmen, S. J. von Cappeln, P. Steinbusch, H. W. Korr, H. Heinsen, H. ... & Schmitz, C. (2008). Neurons in the fusiform gyrus are fewer and smaller in autism. Brain, 131(4), 987-999.
Wilson, R. R. Blades, M. Coleman, M. & Pascalis, O. (2009). Unfamiliar face recognition in children with autistic spectrum disorders. Infant and Child Development, 18(6), 545-555.
Yi, L. Fan, Y. Quinn, P. C. Feng, C. Huang, D. Li, J. ... & Lee, K. (2013). Abnormality in face scanning by children with autism spectrum disorder is limited to the eye region: Evidence from multi-method analyses of eye tracking data. Journal of vision, 13(10), 5.
- ISBN (eBook)
- File size
- 493 KB
- Catalog Number
- Institution / College
- Brunel University
- faceprocessing ASD autism autistic autisticspectrumdisorder spectrum disorder impairement psychology development neurodevelopmental neurodevelopment