Autistic children can read mental state of others through their eyes

Autistic children are able to interpret the mental state of others by looking at their eyes, contrary to previous research, a new University of Nottingham study has found.

In findings that contradict previous studies, psychologists found that autistic children can ‘read’ a stranger’s mental state based on that person’s eyes. Autistic children have long been thought to be poor at interpreting people’s mental states based on facial expressions, especially expressions around the eyes.

Some researchers believe that this lack of ability could be central to the social problems experienced by autistic children and adults.

But the latest findings cast doubt on this hypothesis. A study at The University of Nottingham found that autistic children were able to interpret mental states when looking at animated facial expressions. The findings also suggest that the use of moving images, rather than conventional still pictures, gives a much more accurate measure of the abilities of autistic children.

Researchers hope that by increasing understanding of autism, their findings may ultimately help in the teaching and treatment of people with the condition.

Published in the latest issue of the journal Child Development, the study was led by Dr Elisa Back. Her co-researchers were Professor Peter Mitchell and Dr Danielle Ropar of the School of Psychology at The University of Nottingham.

Dr Back said: “Previous findings show that children and adolescents with autism may have difficulty reading mental states from facial expressions but our results suggest that this is not due to an inability to interpret information from the eyes.

“Surprisingly, autistic children seemed particularly reliant on the eyes and also the mouth when making mentalistic inferences.

“The conclusions of previous research are largely based on methods that present static photographs to participants. Our study indicates that a more accurate measure of the abilities of those with autism can be obtained through the use of sophisticated digital imaging techniques with animated facial expressions.”

The study compared two groups of autistic children, one group aged 10–14 and one aged 11–15, with two control groups of non-autistic children. They underwent a series of tests to see whether they could gauge the mental state of a stranger by looking at different parts of the face.

Researchers conducted two experiments in which the participants looked at a series of facial expressions on a laptop screen. In the facial images used, the eyes and mouth were either ‘freeze-framed’ in a neutral expression, or animated and expressive. By showing a sequence of different combinations, they were able to gauge which aspects of the face were used by the autistic children to ‘read’ someone’s mental state — and how successful they were.

In the second experiment, the 18 autistic children involved were as successful as non-autistic children in interpreting mental states, whether they saw the eyes in isolation or in the context of the whole face. This indicates that autistic children do, in fact, make use of information from the eyes — a finding that contradicts prior studies.

An estimated 588,000 people have autism in the UK, according to the National Autistic Society. A mental health survey by the Office for National Statistics found the prevalence of children and young people anywhere on the autistic spectrum is 0.9 per cent — almost one in every 100.

Source: University of Nottingham

27 thoughts on “Autistic children can read mental state of others through their eyes

  1. As a teacher who has had some interaction with children on the Autism Spectrum I found this article fascinating. This challenges much of the conventional wisdom about how autistic children interact with others socially. This, if it can be replicated to a wider sample, will make us rethink much of what we do to help autistic children in schools.

  2. John Botscharow

    As the father of an eleven year old autistic son, I want to thank you for this post. I have always felt that my son could do what this study confirms. He has loved watching movies every since he was very young and seemed to understand what was going on in those movies. And he always seemed to react appropriately to animated emotional activity directed at him.

    Do you have a link to this study? Please post it here if you do. I would very much like to read it for myself.

    BTW, the last research here in the US shows that one out of 150 children are born with some form of autism. There is some significant research that links the ever increasing rate of autism in children to the mandatory vaccinations they are required to have at a very young age. But, that research has not really gotten the recognition it deserves thanks, IMHO, to the overwhelming clout that the pharmaceutical companies have with the medical community and with our politicians,

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  4. sunshine13

    My son has Aspergers (high autism) and I can say that from this side of the fence YES he can read faces and always knows the mental state of other! Your post has just told me that others know this too! Great one.

  5. As a parent of an autistic child I can say without a doubt my son can read facial expression sometimes much better than my typical son can 🙂 This was a very interesting post.

  6. I read this article with interest earlier on. It makes a lot of sense, particularly given that autistic children relate to visual images when learning. I would have hoped that researchers would have considered presenting them with animated images rather than static images. I suspect there will be many more myths that will be debunked through proper scientific research.

  7. Thanks for the interesting read. I work with kids and adults with autism and grew up with another. Although I use “conventional” behavioral means in teaching new skills to these folks, my natural temperament is to be very animated, with lots of facial expression. I agree with the other comments here; my experience has been that many people on the spectrum do read the eyes. I wonder about the research itself — were they counting those peripheral looks that are so common in this population? I think I’ll go look at the studies themselves.

    Thanks again.

  8. I just saw an eposide on CNN about autistic children. I find this information very interesting. I do wonder why we don’t talk about autism much more than we do considering the amount of children who end up with it.

  9. Kathi

    I am not so sure I believe this – as a parent of a child with Asperger’s (On the spectrum) – I do know that there has been thoguht they cannot express compassion for others. Instead there is compassion, truly – and the most loyal friend if given the chance. There is intolerance for the social behaviors of the so called normal people. My son tends to be more mature than his teenage friends so say his teachers – not patient with the social games and antics of his peers. It has made me wonder in retrospect if they are right and correct expected behavior. Still it is sad to see him ostracized and in turn so are we as parents. He has been my hero facing unkindnesses of peers and adults with such undauntedness. Asperger’s can be the invisible disability.

  10. I believe this from the brief encounter with an autistic child. I spent a week at a friend’s house whose 10-year-old son was autistic. The moment he looked at me we bonded and he seemed to know exactly what I was feeling even when I tried to hide it. Like when I was leaving and wanted to cry.

    He was also extremely aware of everything that went on around him. He would be watching something standing right in front of the TV and my friend and I would be talking quietly, but whever we said something that concerned him, he would respond and then go right back to the TV.

    He would come into my room every morning and want to cuddle and play and I can’t think of a nicer way to wake up in the morning. What is heartbreaking is that after I left, he kept asking for me. He kept repeating my name and then saying ‘airplane’ because he knew that’s how I had arrived and left.

    He was the most amazing little boy. I still miss him every day. Sorry for interupting, It’s just that this little boy affected me so much and I wanted to share that.

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  15. I am happy to add my delight at having this information confirmed. Along with other parents of autistic children, you kinda know, but at the same time you’re only the parent, so having an expert tell you that you’re right gladdens the heart.
    Cheers and thanks so much for this, made my day, if not week!

  16. phalene

    Mmm, I get really frustrated to be told I’m emotionless or unable to read people, when I know that I can. My Asperger’s means I have to learn people like text books, but I can still read!

  17. paulwilburn

    is there any u.s. medical facility/ physician wo can lessen paralysis & restore all or any functions after chronic brain stroke? can travel to them & pay for treatment.

  18. I’ve never confront with autistic child before. I don’t really know what to do if I faced them. But thank you for sharing this information. It opened up my eyes of few things.

  19. John Botscharow

    Autistic children, depending on the level of their autism, are quite capable of some amazing things. My son memorises movie trailers almost after the first viewing. He can remember them months later even if he has not seen them for months.

    To get an idea of what autistics are capable of, I recommend you watch Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Also Forrest Gump can be viewed as a high functioning autistic. Do a search on “idiot savant” for more accounts of what autistics can do.

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