Understanding the face of autism

A multidisciplinary group of researchers, affiliated with HMRI and based at the University of Newcastle, are conducting a groundbreaking study which aims to identify whether the difficulties with social interaction often experienced by individuals with autism are related to a difficulty in interpreting the emotional content of faces.

This research is part of a doctoral degree being conducted by Alicia Sercombe in the Functional Neuroimaging Lab of the School of Behavioural Sciences, Faculty of Science and Information Technology, under the supervision of Professor Pat Michie and Dr Frini Karayanidis.

Alicia's work aims to identify whether children with autism have specific difficulty in differentiating between facial features or facial expressions, which may affect the quality of their social interactions. This research is funded by the University of Newcastle Research Office and the Hunter Children Research Foundation.

Professor Ken Nunn, Head of the NEXUS unit at John Hunter Hospital and one of the senior researchers on this project says, "We are using the face as a window to the brain. Just as computers have a visual monitor the brain displays its workings in the face. We are hopeful that we may gain vital clues into the brain's workings to solve the riddle of Autism and its impact on the children's social lives."

"Up to date we have been dealing with symptoms and behaviours. What we need if we are to find cures is to understand what has gone wrong in the building blocks of the brain," Professor Nunn.

Professor Pat Michie says, "The human face provides vital and extensive information regarding the identity and emotional tone of others. During social interactions, analysis of eye contact, gaze patterns and facial expression provides a rich source of non-verbal information which contributes to the interpretation of the verbal message."

"Given the importance of face perception in social interactions, impairment in this ability can have marked effects on social relations and communications."

"By confirming a specific impairment in facial expression processing, we can implement early intervention programs to reduce the social isolation experienced by people with autism, and assist parents, families and friends of children with autism," says Professor Michie.

Alicia Sercombe will be recruiting children with autism and children with mild intellectual delay through the community and through the Department of Ageing Disability and Home Care (DADHC).

Alicia says, "It is crucial to compare the performance of children with autism to that of other children with the same level of intellectual functioning as well as with typically developing children in the same age range. This will allow us to determine whether the difficulties in face processing are specific to autism."

"Children will complete a set of tests that will require discrimination between different faces and different facial emotions. We have developed this test to be able to examine whether children with autism have a specific problem with processing facial identity and/or facial expressions," says Alicia.


  1. silvia costanzo silvia costanzo Canada says:

    Alicia, I have read your e-mail, I would like to talk to you about my 13 year old son, who was diagnosed with mild intellectual delay in grade 3, he was also diagnosed with diabetes at 6 weeks of age, his doctor at Sick Kids says it was neonatal diabetes. Do you feel the two are connected in some way?

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