Disability news

Study links inability to recognise facial expressions to learning disabilities

three pictures of the same woman making three different facial expressions, happy, cross and surprised

A study carried out in Italy suggests children with autism and learning disabilities find it more difficult to recognise facial emotions.

Even if sometimes it may not be obvious, picking up on a person’s expressions is a key part of social interaction which, judging by the recent research, could be a reason why a percentage of autistic people find it difficult to communicate.

Study author Rachele Lievore assessed the behaviour of 263 children and adolescents aged 8 to 16, in which 60 had autism, 63 were diagnosed with learning disabilities and 140 did not have either.

Each participant was shown 144 pairs of images of actors expressing different forms of emotions, the challenge was to determine if the actors were showing the same or different emotion.

Ahead of the study, parents of every youngster completed an assessment of their child’s social anxiety level using the parent-report form of the Multidimensional Anxiety Scale for Children.

The children also completed a series of three tests monitoring their inhibitory [ the ability to suppress impulsive responses and resist distractions to maintain goal-directed behaviour ], set-shifting [ the ability to adapt to changing tasks, rules or perspectives flexibly ]  and updating [ the capacity to monitor and revise working memory with new, relevant information. ]

Results from the study showed children with specific learning disabilities and autism were less able to grasp facial emotions compared to youngsters without the aforementioned conditions, they also displayed higher levels of anxiety.

The children with autism who showed high social anxiety were more assertive recognising facial emotions.

However, the children with specific learning disabilities and lower social anxiety tended to fare better picking up on facial emotion recognition.

The study authors told PsyPost: “Overall, despite similar weaknesses in FER [facial emotion recognition] in ASD [autism spectrum disorder] and SLD [specific learning disabilities], different underlying mechanisms may lie behind such performances in these two different neurodevelopmental conditions. Understanding these differences can guide practitioners in designing individualized interventions, tailored to the specific challenges of the examined clinical profile.”

It is important to bear in mind facial recognition abilities were measured using static images of actors simulating emotional expressions, in contrast to experiencing them in real life situations.

[ Surprise, neutral emotion, and sadness are believed to be the hardest facial expressions to recognise. ]

Related Articles

Help support us continuing our groundbreaking work. Make a donation to help with our running costs, and support us with continuing to bring you all the latest news, reviews and accessibility reports. Become a supporter or sponsor of Able2UK today!

Able2UK Logo