Children with autism misjudge how others are feeling because they do not use context to identify underlying emotions, a study has found.
The research is the first to investigate whether autistic children can recognise when one emotion is masking a different feeling that can only be identified from contextual cues.
An example of this would be a man crying because he is happy as he is at his daughter’s wedding, rather than him crying because he is sad.
Picking up on the differences between emotional expression and emotional feeling is an essential tool in effectively managing social exchanges, researchers say.
Dr Steven Stagg, senior lecturer in psychology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said: “Our findings suggest that children with autism may misjudge the feelings of others due to an over-reliance on facial cues to the detriment of contextual cues, rather than an inability to recognise facial emotion.
“In fact, we found that children with autism are just as capable as their typically developing peers at recognising static images of facial emotion.
“However, in everyday life facial expressions are not presented in a vacuum.
“People commonly attempt to hide their feelings, and therefore accurate recognition of emotion involves processing both facial expressions and contextual cues.”
The study involved 40 participants from year groups 9 and 10 (aged between 13-15).
Twenty children were recruited from a specialist school for children with autism in the UK, and a control group of 20 typically developing children from two local schools.
The experiment was split into two sections, with the groups first being shown photographs of people displaying static emotions – fear, anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, and surprise.
Researchers found that both groups of children were equally capable of identifying the correct emotion.
Participants then watched six short films where a central character displayed a facial expression that matched the scene’s context.
Later in the scene, the character displayed an expression that masked their earlier expression, but could be understood as a socially acceptable reaction in the context of the scene.
In one scene an actor buys a cup of coffee, another actor then bumps into him, making him spill his coffee.
The central character first displays an angry face but after receiving an apology displays a forced smile.
According to the study, while there was no statistical difference between the scores of the two groups, when asked to identify the emotions on display in the films, the children with autism were unable to correctly say how the actor felt.
For example, the forced smile of the man in the coffee incident was identified as happiness.
Dr Stagg added: “In our study, the children with autism struggled when asked to describe how the actors were feeling.
“We believe this is because these children have difficulties integrating the narrative with the facial expressions, and instead their judgments are guided only by the visible emotion on display.
“In part, this may be due to the higher cognitive demand that more complex stimuli, such as context, place on processing capacity.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.