Atypical Face Perception in Autism: A Point of View?

Autism Res. 2015 Oct;8(5):497-506. doi: 10.1002/aur.1464. Epub 2015 Feb 11.


Face perception is the most commonly used visual metric of social perception in autism. However, when found to be atypical, the origin of face perception differences in autism is contentious. One hypothesis proposes that a locally oriented visual analysis, characteristic of individuals with autism, ultimately affects performance on face tasks where a global analysis is optimal. The objective of this study was to evaluate this hypothesis by assessing face identity discrimination with synthetic faces presented with and without changes in viewpoint, with the former condition minimizing access to local face attributes used for identity discrimination. Twenty-eight individuals with autism and 30 neurotypical participants performed a face identity discrimination task. Stimuli were synthetic faces extracted from traditional face photographs in both front and 20° side viewpoints, digitized from 37 points to provide a continuous measure of facial geometry. Face identity discrimination thresholds were obtained using a two-alternative, temporal forced choice match-to-sample paradigm. Analyses revealed an interaction between group and condition, with group differences found only for the viewpoint change condition, where performance in the autism group was decreased compared to that of neurotypical participants. The selective decrease in performance for the viewpoint change condition suggests that face identity discrimination in autism is more difficult when access to local cues is minimized, and/or when dependence on integrative analysis is increased. These results lend support to a perceptual contribution of atypical face perception in autism.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorder; face perception; global; local; synthetic faces; viewpoint change.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autistic Disorder / physiopathology*
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology*
  • Cues
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology
  • Facial Expression
  • Facial Recognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Young Adult