New research indicates that children on the autism spectrum can identify emotions in body language just as accurately as their typically-developing peers, contradicting the commonly-held belief that individuals with autism are blind to others’ feelings. Children with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) do have more difficulty identifying emotions solely from faces or eyes, however, so “Look at me,” may not always be a constructive request when trying to communicate effectively with a child on the spectrum.
Previous research on this topic has produced mixed results, and the authors of this new study (citation below) attempted to address the limitations of previous work. The current study focused on children (previous work primarily studied adults), included almost 150 participants (much previous work had small sample sizes), and compared emotion detection from eyes alone and from whole-body postures without faces (other work used only faces and eyes).
The research team, consisting of members from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia and the University of Pittsburgh, PA, studied a total of 67 children with ASC and 72 typically-developing (TD) children between the ages of 5 and 12 years. They found that the children with ASC were just as capable of identifying emotions from full-body postures as their typically developing peers; both groups scored highly on the body-emotion measure. However, children with ASC did not identify emotions from eyes alone nearly as well as their TD peers. TD children did find identifying emotions from eyes alone more difficult than when looking at entire bodies, but the difference wasn’t as great as in children with ASC.
The team also looked at whether verbal IQ and empathy (as assessed by children’s teachers) were correlated with children’s ability to detect emotions. Interestingly, verbal IQ showed no correlation with emotion detection in either ASC or TD children, suggesting that skill in detecting emotions is unrelated to verbal intelligence. Teachers indicated that on average, TD children demonstrated greater empathy than children with ASC. However, neither group of children showed a correlation between empathy (as assessed by their teachers) and their ability to detect emotions from either eyes or complete bodies. This suggests that the seemingly reduced empathy observed in children with ASC is not caused by a simple inability to perceive emotion, but might rather reflect a lack of motivation or knowledge of how to help others. Ability to detect emotion from bodies was also correlated with age in both groups, with older children performing better.
The researchers also analyzed the relationship between theory of mind and emotion detection. Theory of mind refers to the ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective. Overall, TD children performed better on traditional measures of theory of mind than children with ASC. In the ASC group, theory of mind results correlated significantly with emotion detection from bodies, but not from eyes. This indicates a connection between theory of mind and emotion detection, but suggests they are not interchangeable in all contexts.
Overall, this study suggests that children on the autism spectrum are fully able to interpret emotions from body posture (especially older children), but may struggle to identify emotions from faces and eyes alone. Many individuals on the spectrum avoid eye contact, some finding it distracting or even threatening. These results suggest that those individuals may not obtain a great deal of social information from eye contact either, which reduces the value of eye contact for them even more. This research also indicates that the ability to interpret emotions from body posture increases with age, suggesting that continued exposure to body language can increase one’s knowledge of which emotions are associated with various postures.
The ability of children with ASC to identify emotions from bodies in this study is encouraging, although the authors acknowledge that the conditions of the experiment were unrealistic: there was no expectation of a social response, the children were given as much time as they wanted to identify each emotion, and the images were still. In real-life social situations, the often fleeting nature of body language and the stress of a social interaction could make identifying emotions more difficult for individuals with ASC.
The original study can be found here:
Peterson CC, Slaughter V & Brownell C. 2015. Children with autism spectrum disorder are skilled at reading emotion body language. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 139:35-50
Images on left from the Simon Baron-Cohen Reading Emotion from the Eyes test (top to bottom: playful, worried, tentative). Images on right from Schindler, Gool, & Gelder (2008) were used in this study with facial expressions blurred out (top to bottom: happy, angry, surprised).