Autism Study

New study suggests autistic children can misjudge emotions

By Gemma Raw

Researchers at Anglia Ruskin University found that children with autism don't apply context to facial expressions. This is the first time that formal research has been carried out to investigate whether autistic children can recognise when one emotion is masking another, for example when someone cries with happiness. The findings will be of interest to many frontline health, care and education professionals, including social workers specialising in learning disabilities, as well as those in general social work roles who may come into contact with autistic children.

"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," explained Dr Steven Stagg, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University.

"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."

Research parameters

40 children aged between 13 and 15 took part in the study: 20 from a specialist school for children with autism plus a control group of 20 neurotypical children from two local schools. They were first shown photos of people displaying static emotions, such as fear, anger, happiness, sadness, disgust and surprise, all being easily recognised by both groups.

The two groups then watched six short films in which actors first displayed facial expressions that matched the scenic context, then later showed a 'socially acceptable' reaction that masked their earlier expression. The children with autism were unable to say how the actor was feeling.

New guidance

In July this year, as part of its revised autism strategy, the Government announced that social workers will receive new standards on working with autistic children and their families. This was one of several recommendations made in a study by the Chief Social Workers for adults and children.

The new capabilities statement, expected to be published by May 2022, will complement the existing framework for working with autistic adults, which was commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care and developed by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) in 2019.

The revised strategy also includes a commitment that social workers going through the national assessment and accreditation system (NAAS) will be assessed on their knowledge of practice with autistic children through the addition of relevant assessment materials.

The full text of the Government's National Strategy for Autistic Children, Young People and Adults: 2021 to 2026 is available here.