People who are on the autism spectrum are often thought of as lacking the ability to accurately recognize the emotions of others, but is that true? A study published in Autism Research suggests that when certain differences are accounted for, individuals with autism can actually outperform neurotypicals.
People on the autism spectrum are often described as lacking social skills. When people think this, it is often centered around what social abilities and emotional recognition looks like for the average neurotypical person, without taking into account any potential differences. One of these considerations is the “double empathy” problem, where the autistic person’s way of thinking is not considered by the neurotypical person either.
For example, a widely dismissed consideration is that people on the autism spectrum show strength with anthropomorphic social abilities, or cognition around nonhumans such as animals, cartoons, robots, or dolls. These misconceptions can be detrimental to people with autism for many reasons, including that it causes stigma and can make professionals less likely to reach the correct diagnosis if they do not have trouble socializing.
For their study, Liam Cross, Andrea Piovesan, and Gray Atherton utilized 196 participants to serve as their sample — 98 people on the autism spectrum and an additional 98 age-matched neurotypical individuals. Participants answered demographic questions and then were assigned to either the Reading Mind in the Eyes Test (RME) or the Cartoon Reading Mind in the Eyes Test (C-RME).
For the RME condition, participants viewed 36 pictures of eyes, while in the C-RME participants viewed 36 drawings of eyes. All participants were asked to identify what emotion the eyes were portraying in each picture. Finally, participants indicated how difficult the task was for them.
Results showed that there were no significant group differences between autistic and neurotypical participants on the test that used pictures of actual human eyes. Researchers theorized this could have been in part due to the inflated number of female participants, because women have shown greater success on this test than men in previous research.
Additionally, autistic participants outperformed their neurotypical counterparts on the test that measured emotional recognition in cartoon eyes, showcasing the improved anthropomorphic abilities of many people on the autism spectrum. Autistic and neurotypical participants did not report different levels of difficulty completing these tasks.
“The results of our experiment were really surprising,” said Atherton in a news release. “Autistic people are often described as ‘mind-blind’ or having poorer socio-cognitive skills than neurotypicals. In our test, not only were autistic able to read emotions in cartoons, but they did it with better accuracy than neurotypical participants.
“The fact neurotypicals did worse than autistic people on cartoon eyes raises important questions. Research suggests that this could be an area of social-cognitive strength in autistic people who seem better at identifying with anthropomorphic and non-human agents like animals, robots, dolls or cartoons.”
This study took important steps into better understanding the potential strengths regarding the social-emotional skills of people on the autism spectrum. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the sample is skewed female, which could affect the results seen, as previous research shows that autistic females have less trouble with this sort of emotional regulation task. Additionally, this study fell short of the number of participants needed to detect large effect sizes; future research could utilize more participants.
“Our research opens up a range of possibilities,” Cross said. “If anthropomorphic eyes are easier to read for people with autism, then this could be used to help individuals respond similarly to real eyes. One idea we are exploring is using augmented reality to develop filters that can apply anthropomorphic faces on top of real-life faces. Over time, the augmented reality can be stripped away, allowing the user to apply the same techniques to human faces.”
The study, “Autistic people outperform neurotypicals in a cartoon version of Reading the Mind in the Eyes”, was authored by Liam Cross, Andrea Piovesan, and Gray Atherton.