Studying faces could help children with autism

Published: 22 February 2013 at 11:35

New research by Anglia Ruskin psychologist suggests ways to improve language skills

New research has shown that children with autism could improve their language skills by being encouraged to look at the faces or their parents or carers.

The findings by psychologist Dr Steven Stagg of Anglia Ruskin University, and colleagues from Goldsmiths, University of London, have been published by the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The research involved testing 32 children recruited from an autism self-help group.  These children, aged 7-15, were split into two groups based on their position on the Autism Spectrum Disorder; a “language delay” group and a “language normal” group, which is commonly associated with sufferers of Asperger’s Syndrome.  A group of 18 “typically developing” children from local schools was used as a control for the experiment.

The researchers wanted to know why children with autism of similar levels of intelligence develop language at startlingly different rates.  Amongst the autistic children who took part in the research, some didn’t utter their first word until after their fourth birthday whilst one mother reported that her son said his first word, “gravity”, after just 18 months.

The study investigated whether arousal to social objects, such as the faces of others, could help explain these differences.  Using Skin Conductive Responses (SCR) tests similar to those used in lie detection, the researchers measured the response of children with autism to faces presented on a computer screen.

SCR is a method of measuring the electrical conductance of the skin, which is affected by moisture levels.  Because the nervous system controls a person’s sweat glands, skin conductance is therefore an indication of physiological or psychological arousal.

Out of the two groups of children with autism, the late language developers showed extremely low levels of arousal to faces whereas those with more advanced language skills displayed heightened levels, although both groups showed lower response levels than the control group.

Dr Stagg said:

“We found that some children with autism find faces stimulating and are more prone to engage with others.  Being able to pay attention to the gaze of a caregiver as they name objects is an important precursor to language onset. The children who were not being stimulated by the faces would stop looking at them.
“Arousal directs attention and children with autism who display heightened levels of arousal to faces also show an advantage in relation to language development and would almost certainly have been more likely to make eye contact with others when they were infants.
“If children diagnosed with autism were trained to look at faces of parents or nursery workers from an early age, our research indicates that it could lead to improvement in their language development.”