The Struggle For Emotional Recognition

Emotional and facial expression recognition are particularly interesting phenomena. Not only are they both incredibly fundamental to our interactions, but we are rarely even aware of performing them. While we rely heavily on our ability to recognize each other’s faces and emotions, this reliance makes life that much harder for those who struggle with these processes.

A few months ago, we sought to bring attention to those who live with Moebius Syndrome, a type of facial paralysis that prevents any sort of facial expression. Now, it is important to shift the focus to the opposite case: those who can display emotions but cannot recognize them in others.

A recent study from the University of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology fueled the growing body of literature which finds that those with autism, and especially children with autism, struggle to accurately recognize emotions in other people.

These researchers showed a group of children, aged six to sixteen, a series of images displaying basic emotional expressions, such as happiness, disgust, or anger. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those with autism had more difficulty identifying which emotions were being displayed.

While those on the autism spectrum are generally viewed as having trouble with emotional recognition, the study authors went further, suggesting that they could be taught to cultivate this skill. As Dr. Chris Jarrold said “For those who do struggle with recognizing emotions from faces, teaching emotion recognition may be helpful for learning to navigate social situations.”

This is an exciting suggestion, as we have probably all heard the common notion that autism is characterized by a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence. If those with autism simply cannot feel empathy, how can they learn to do so? This is especially challenging given the role of empathy in emotional recognition.

In fact, a 2016 study attempted to debunk this stereotype by contrasting autism with alexithymia, the latter of which is characterized explicitly by a lack of empathy. The study author, Dr. Rebecca Brewer, found that alexithymia is not particularly more likely amongst those who also live with autism. In fact, many of the autistic people studied showed an unusually high level of empathetic awareness.

Instead, the inability to identify emotions may have more to do with the difficulties that autistic people have in recognizing faces. Numerous studies, including this one from 2015, have found a strong instance of face-blindness in autistic populations, as high as two thirds. It remains unclear why this is the case, but this potential explanation for autism-related difficulties in emotional recognition helps solve our puzzle.

The problem for those with autism is not based in emotions but based in an underdeveloped skill. Facial recognition is a critical part of emotional recognition, because it allows us to contrast our knowledge of another person’s face with the current emotion being displayed. Instead of recognizing emotions in this almost instantaneous fashion, those with autism can better learn the characteristic features of different basic emotions.

The team at Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology is attempting to do just that, by developing an iPad app that can teach emotional recognition to those with autism and to those who’s ability is simply underdeveloped.

For more information on basic emotions, click here, or visit this page to see how you can improve your own recognition skills!

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