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The Eyes Have It - Understanding How Those With Autism Read Emotion

Posted by Brian Spence on Aug 1, 2016 8:00:00 AM

Autism, Behavioral HealthPeople with autism see faces differently and often miss cues that awkward social interactions. While some believe that many with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) appear to be emotionally flat, that is not the case. They may not express emotions in typical ways, but they actually perceive the emotions of others and do feel empathy.

"It's true that many people with autism don't show emotion in ways that people without the condition would recognize," says Rebecca Brewer, lecturer at the University of East London.

"Although this trait is almost universally accepted as being part of autism, there’s little scientific evidence to back up this notion."

Brewer maintains that the real culprit in lack of empathy is alexithymia, a condition that renders some people unable to understand or talk about their own feelings. About half the ASD population also have alexithymia.

Brewer conducted a study that tested her theory, using autistic and non-autistic people, some with and some without alexithymia. Using videos, she measured how they responded to seeing other people in pain. She found that autism is not associated with a lack of empathy.

Brewer says it is unfair and hurtful to assume that those with ASD lack empathy. A bit of patience and understanding will go a long way to ease the misconceptions.

We use eye contact to tell how someone is feeling during a conversation. That is not the case with people who have ASD, who have a hard time maintaining eye contact.

A team of academic researchers at the University of Vermont are working with new eye-tracking technology to determine what part of the face children with ASD look at during a conversation. “What you talk about really matters for children with ASD. Just change a few words by talking about what people do versus how they feel and you can have a profound impact on where eyes go for information.”

The goal for all of these researchers is to improve the lives of the ASD population, giving speech and other therapists new ways to treat the over three million people who have been diagnosed.

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