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Neurodivergent And Autistic People Are Better At Reading Cartoon Emotions, Study Finds

The research supports a "differences rather than deficits” idea of neurodivergent people.

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Jack Dunhill

Social Media Coordinator and Staff Writer

clockNov 15 2022, 17:28 UTC
picture of eyes in cartoon and picture
An image from the 'Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test. Image credit: Edge Hill University

One of the characteristics thought to be common in neurodivergent people is a struggle to recognize emotions. Particularly for people on the autistic spectrum, it is often more difficult to pick up cues from facial expressions than it is for neurotypical people – but what if this is because they are being shown the information in the wrong form? 

A new piece of research suggests that when facial expressions are given in cartoon form, autistic people may actually outperform neurotypical people in an emotion-recognition test. The results suggest that the idea that neurodivergent people struggle in social scenarios may be outdated; instead, they may simply excel in different scenarios where neurotypical people do not. 

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“The results of our experiment were really surprising. Autistic people are often described as ‘mind-blind’ or having poorer socio-cognitive skills than neurotypicals. In our test, not only were autistic able to read emotions in cartoons, but they did it with better accuracy than neurotypical participants,” said Dr Gray Atherton, co-author of the study, in a statement.

“The fact neurotypicals did worse than autistic people on cartoon eyes raises important questions. Research suggests that this could be an area of social-cognitive strength in autistic people who seem better at identifying with anthropomorphic and nonhuman agents like animals, robots, dolls or cartoons.” 

Taking a cohort of 196 autistic and neurotypical adults, the researchers asked each to complete a ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes' test. Essentially, each person was shown a picture of just eyes and asked what emotion that person was feeling, and then asked to repeat that with a cartoon version. The results from the autistic people were compared to those from the neurotypical people.  

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The findings showed that the neurodivergent people did not differ significantly from neurotypical people in the picture version, but outperformed them in the cartoon version. According to the researchers, the results support a "differences rather than deficits” idea of neurodivergent people. 

Now, they hope their study can help in improving interactions for neurodivergent and autistic people, perhaps by incorporating anthropomorphic images instead of just photographs. 

“Our research opens up a range of possibilities. If anthropomorphic eyes are easier to read for people with autism, then this could be used to help individuals respond similarly to real eyes,” said Dr Liam Cross, co-author of the paper. 

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“One idea we are exploring is using augmented reality to develop filters that can apply anthropomorphic faces over the top of real-life faces. Over time, the augmented reality can be stripped away, allowing the user to apply the same techniques to human faces.” 

The study was published in Autism Research.


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  • tag
  • autism,

  • Emotions,

  • facial expressions,

  • facial cues,

  • neurodiversity

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