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Recognition of facial expressions in autism: effects of face masks and alexithymia

Gehdu, B. K., Tsantani, M., Press, C., Gray, K. L. H. and Cook, R. (2023) Recognition of facial expressions in autism: effects of face masks and alexithymia. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 76 (12). pp. 2854-2864. ISSN 1747-0226

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1177/17470218231163007


It is often assumed that the recognition of facial expressions is impaired in autism. However, recent evidence suggests that reports of expression recognition difficulties in autistic participants may be attributable to co-occurring alexithymia – a trait associated with difficulties interpreting interoceptive and emotional states – not autism per se. Due to problems fixating on the eye-region, autistic individuals may be more reliant on information from the mouth region when judging facial expressions. As such, it may be easier to detect expression recognition deficits attributable to autism, not alexithymia, when participants are forced to base expression judgements on the eye-region alone. To test this possibility, we compared the ability of autistic participants (with and without high levels of alexithymia) and non-autistic controls to categorize facial expressions i) when the whole face was visible, and ii) when the lower portion of the face was covered with a surgical mask. High-alexithymic autistic participants showed clear evidence of expression recognition difficulties: they correctly categorised fewer expressions than non-autistic controls. In contrast, low-alexithymic autistic participants were unimpaired relative to non-autistic controls. The same pattern of results was seen when judging masked and unmasked expression stimuli. In sum, we find no evidence for an expression recognition deficit attributable to autism, in the absence of high levels of co-occurring alexithymia, either when participants judge whole-face stimuli or just the eye-region. These findings underscore the influence of co-occurring alexithymia on expression recognition in autism.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Department of Psychology
Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Perception and Action
ID Code:109885


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