Face Perception in Social Development in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Dr. James McPartland,
Yale University

In this lecture, Dr. James McPartland reviews face perception in social development and its relevance to understanding social perception in autism. Based on research findings from the field of brain electrophysiology, differences in salience and proficiency in processing social versus non-social information are discussed.

Lecture Notes

–          Autism is a social disorder, how do people on the spectrum process social information

–          One of the best ways to study social information processing is by studying face perception skills

–          Triad of autism symptoms are:

  • Social impairment
  • Deficits in communication – different kinds of problems, may not be able to talk, or may have lots of language but have problems with communicating with people in a social context
  • Rigid, repetitive behaviours and interests – less well defined, ranging from repetitive motor movement like hand flapping or insisting on a particular schedule or particular routine
  • Problems in all three areas above are classified as an autism spectrum disorder

Social impairments shape development, exerting primary and secondary effects

–          Crucial to understand about autism is that it happens in a developing child, so autism is not just something that happens, it is something that a person is most likely born with, but then they carry that with them as they grow and develop as a person and moves through the world and in that respect, autism shapes the world that the person lives in so whatever is different about their brain when they are born, it is also affected by a very different world that they live in

–          The primary things that first shape the brain but then there is the secondary things that a person experiences as they move through the world as a person on the autism spectrum

–          Typical social development in humans looks like this:

Interest in people Attending to people Thinking and learning about people
Social Expertise
  • We come into the world paying really close attention to people, and remain that way throughout life
  • For most of us, people are what make the world go around and we spend our lives thinking and learning about people, we become social experts

–          Social development in humans on the autism spectrum looks like this:

Interest in things Attending to things Thinking and learning about things
Non-social Expertise
  • For people on the autism spectrum they become experts in things rather than people
  • Paying attention to things instead of people, learning about those things and becoming experts in those things instead of social experts about people
  • We are not saying that this is a brain (of a person on the autism spectrum) that can’t do certain kinds of things, the brain can do many complex things, we are saying it is the kind of brain that is paying attention to the wrong kinds of information which is a crucial distinction
  • Theories that explain autism are largely grouped into two categories 1) there is something wrong with the ability to process social information, and 2) or this is brain that can’t handle the nature of processing of things that happen to be social because social information is too complex
  • The brain can do many complex and sophisticated things, it just can’t do them with social information
  • The further a person develops the harder it will be with many of the things that matter in the world like having friends, and activities that involve people

Behavioral and Brain Specialization in Face Perception

–          You can learn a lot about faces early on in life and you can apply those concepts throughout a person’s lifespan

Faces in social development

–          Faces are a primary means of engaging in early social interactions, faces are one of the first ways we learn to interact with other people

–          Behavioral and brain specialization for faces is well studied from infancy throughout adulthood about how people approach faces

–          The study of face processing offers a tool for understanding social development in autism

–          The ‘Like Me’ hypothesis, children are born with an internal and intra-modal map so they can map on what they see to their sense of their body and that is from where social interaction emerges

–          Precocious face processing skills provide a foundation for understanding much more sophisticated social interaction skills and developing a theory of mind that other people have their own intentions, their own wants, their own needs, their own beliefs

–          Understanding other people’s faces and eyes is the first way we can learn about other people’s intentions, and by understanding other people’s intentions we can then build on the idea that other people intentions are not the same as ours, and that is the basis of the theory of mind (Simon Baron-Cohen)

–          We as humans are very good with faces before we are very good with many other things

–          And as we develop we see that the brain has a special way of handling things

–          The human visual system processes faces using specialized strategies and specific brain systems

Facts about faces in social development

–          Infants only nine minutes old preferentially look at and track faces and face-like images compared to things

–          Babies are mostly likely to smile at faces and enjoy looking at faces

–          By their second day of life, babies are able to recognize the face of their mother

–          Newborns as young as 42 minutes can imitate facial movements

Electrophysiological methods

Face perception as a tool to understand social dysfunction in autism spectrum disorders

General or specific processing problem

Current work and future directions

Other Resources

Book: Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience

Related Articles:

Yale Seminar on Autism and Related Disorders List of Lectures

iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone Apps for Social Skills

Social Development in Autism Spectrum Disorders

Social Impairment Can Be Improved by Teaching How to Pay Attention to People Instead of Things

Autism Spectrum Intervention/Treatment Evaluation Checklist

Social Skills Activities for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

List of Treatments, Therapies and Interventions for Social Impairment that Improve Social Skills

Complete List of All Articles on Autism Spectrum Directory


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