Differences in discrimination of eye and mouth displacement in autism spectrum disorders
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Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have been found to have impairments in some face recognition tasks [e.g., Boucher, J., & Lewis, V. (1992). Unfamiliar face recognition in relatively able autistic children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 843-859.], and it has been suggested that this impairment occurs because these individuals do not spontaneously attend to the eyes [e.g., Pelphrey, K. A., Sasson, N. J., Reznick, J. S., Paul, G., Goldman, B. D., & Piven, J. (2002). Visual scanning of faces in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 249-261.], or attend selectively to the mouth [e.g., Langdell, T. (1978). Recognition of faces-approach to study of autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 19, 255-268; Joseph, R. M., & Tanaka J. (2003). Holistic and part-based face recognition in children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44, 529-542.]. Here, we test whether the eyes or the mouth are attended to preferentially by 16 males with ASD and 19 matched controls. Participants discriminated small spatial displacements of the eyes and the mouth. If the mouth region were attended to preferentially by individuals with ASD, we would expect ASD observers to be better at detecting subtle changes in mouth than eye displacements, relative to controls. Further, following Barton [Barton, J. J. S., Keenan, J. P., & Bass, T. (2001). Discrimination of spatial relations and features in faces: Effects of inversion and viewing duration. British Journal of Psychology, 92, 527-549.], we would expect to see differences in inversion effects as a function of feature manipulation between ASD and control groups. We found that individuals with ASD performed significantly differently than controls for the eye, but not the mouth, trials. However, we found no difference in inversion effects between the two groups of observers. Furthermore, we found evidence of distinct subclasses of individuals with ASD: those who performed normally, and those who were impaired. These results suggests that typical individuals are better able to make use of information in the eyes than some individuals with ASD, but that there is no clear autism "advantage" in the use of information in the mouth region.
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