A brief review of Annaz, D., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Johnson, M., & Thomas, M. (2009). A cross-syndrome study of the development of holistic face recognition in children with autism, Down syndrome, and Williams syndrome Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 102 (4), 456-486 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2008.11.005

Holistic face recognition is the tendency to experience and process faces as a “whole” instead of a sum of numerous parts. For example, when people are asked to recognize a familiar “nose,” they are more likely to recognize it when the nose is part of a face (even the wrong face) than when the nose is presented in isolation. Since the recognition of faces are a critical developmental step, and research has shown anomalies in face recognition in autism, the authors wanted to examine the development of face recognition abilities among children with autism as compared to children with other developmental disorders, namely: Williams syndrome and Down syndrome.

The authors examined whole face recognition among 33 kids with autism (28 boys with mean age 8 years, 6 months), 15 children with Williams syndrome (7 boys, mean age 8 years, 9 months), 15 children with down’s syndrome (10 boys mean age 9 years 6 months), and 25 typically developing children (13 boys, mean age 7 years 2 months). Autism diagnoses were obtained based on DSM-IV criteria via ADOS. The children completed an experimental task that measures face recognition. In this task, the child was presented with a face (the “target” face), below which were either two faces (comparison faces), or two parts of faces (two noses, or two sets of eyes, etc; we will call these the comparison parts). The child was asked to identify which of the comparison faces (or comparison parts) was the same as the target face. Sometime the comparison faces and parts were rotated 90 degrees, and sometimes these parts were completely upside down.

The authors examined how the different groups of kids differ in accuracy by age. That is, among the kids with autism, how did older kids compared to younger kids? And is this developmental difference the same for kids with Williams syndrome, Down syndrome, etc?

The authors found that all three diagnostic groups showed anomalies in the development of face recognition when compared to typically developing kids. However, the type of anomalies varied significantly between the groups. While the pattern of differences was too complex to summarize here, one particular finding was very intriguing. The children with low (but not high) functioning autism show a disadvantage for identifying eyes but an advantage for identifying mouths. In addition, they were better at identifying eyes and noses when the these were upside down than when they were upside up. This is the opposite of what is expected in typically developing children.

The authors discussed how this may be due to an aversion to looking directly at eyes, especially in upright faces. Therefore, the observed deficiencies in face recognition among the low functioning autism group may not be due to problems in the development of whole face recognition processes per se, but instead this weakness may be due to a natural aversion to stare at the eyes area of the face.

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