Kids With Autism Can Read Emotions Through Body Language

A new study challenges the misconception that kids with the disorder lack empathy

happy body language
Most kids, even those with autism, don’t need to see this guy’s smile to tell he is happy. Oleh Slobodeniuk/Corbis

People with autism face a host of difficulties in a society that doesn’t always accommodate them and stereotypes that even undermine experts’ views on the disorder. Due to the social struggles that accompany autism, there’s a misconception that people with it lack empathy — that is, they can’t understand others’ thoughts and feelings. A new study, like others before it, offers evidence to the contrary.

Kids with autism are just as good at reading emotions in body language as kids without the disorder, reports Rachel David for New Scientist. The findings call into question whether people with autism really do have trouble reading others emotions, or if previous studies mistakenly focused on reading emotion from faces and eyes rather than the body as a whole.

“Looking at a face is in itself a problem,” explains Candida Peterson of the University of Queensland in Australia told New Scientist. Children and adults with autism tend to struggle with eye contact, but the study suggests that perhaps reading body language isn’t as challenging.

In the study, Peterson and her colleagues showed children between the ages of 5 and 12 full-body photos of trained actors portraying happy, sad, angry, afraid, disgusted or surprised emotions. The actors’ faces were blurred. The children with autism did just as well as the children without the disorder in identifying the posed emotions. In a similar test that just showed people’s eyes, the children with autism did not score as well as those without. 

The team published their findings in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology

The researchers note that the kids were able to look at the pictures and judge emotions without the added social pressure of interacting with a real person. Furthermore, people with autism seem to have trouble adapting their behavior in response to others' emotions — simply recognizing an emotion in body language is just part of the picture, Julie Grezes, a researcher not involved with the new study, told New Scientist

However, the information that kids with autism can read body cues might help the teachers, parents and clinicians who work with them every day — and, as Alyssa Z of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network writes for Autism Now, it goes the other way, too. She notes that body language is an important way for some people with autism to communicate with those who don’t have the disorder.

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