Face perception : an approach to the study of autism
The autistic child's ability to identify others' faces and their expressions was investigated in comparison with the ability of non-autistic children. A study of the children's ability to identify peers' from isolated facial areas revealed that the autistic children were abnormally good at this task. Reasons for these findings were investigated in a series of experiments which revealed that the autistic children were also abnormally good at recognising inverted faces and inverted text. The conclusion was drawn that the autistic children's performance was due to their possessing a perceptual integration deficit which prevents them seeing stimuli like faces and words as meaningful wholes. This was investigated further by tests of their ability to discern facial expression and the results of these studies supported the above conclusion. Tests of the children's ability to lip read revealed that the autistic children also had problems with between modality perceptual integration. Studies of their ability to produce facial expressions showed them to be poor at both spontaneous and elicited expressions. Further, whilst they were as good as controls at copying facial expression, they were less able to make use of visual feedback to improve their attempts. This was seen as further evidence for a perceptual integration deficit. Finally, a computerised study of autistic children's eye movements whilst viewing live facial expressions and other stimuli supported much of the previous findings, adding the finding that they had abnormally brief visual fixation times and that they engaged in very few feature-to-feature gaze shifts. The results were discussed and found to favour a theory in which the autistic child's problems with social and communicative competence are linked to his problems with perceptual integration. The possession versus the use of abilities was discussed, as was possible sites of neurological damage, and the possibility that autistic children lack some vital usually 'innate' abilities and propensities.