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The human brain can recognize about 5,000 faces that it has seen at some point. Unfortunately, autistic individuals have a greatly diminished ability to remember or recognize faces, which may negatively affect their social life.

Pennsylvania State University researchers recently concluded the analysis of autism data collected for 40 years, and they found that autistic individuals cannot remember many faces. Doctorate candidate Jason Griffin pointed out that facial recognition is a gateway to social interaction, and it is a precursor to complex social cues.

“Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often struggle with social interactions, which leads to difficulties developing and maintaining friendships and adjusting behavior to social contexts,” stated Griffin.

Griffin believes that the inability to adjust socially reflects the inability to remember faces. His brother was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and it is one of the reasons he is committed to understanding why ASD individuals have social deficits. Griffin also noted that scientists theorized a link between ASD and facial recognition for 40 years.

The researchers evaluated a lot of data to find the pattern

Griffin and fellow researchers used meta-analysis to analyze data from 112 studies involving more than 5000 subjects. They discovered that more than 80% of individuals diagnosed with ASD performed poorly in face identity processing tests than healthy individuals. Psychology professor Suzy Scherf noted that ASD patients likely experience social interaction difficulties due to facial recognition impairment.

The researchers also discovered that the results were consistent regardless of IQ score or gender, meaning that the face-processing deficit is deeply rooted in ASD. Unusual social behavior is one of the major characteristics of ASD patients. The recent findings can potentially be used to formulate targeted therapies that may help improve facial recognition. The approach could improve social behavior in ASD patients, allowing them to interact more naturally.

Griffin believes that the research findings might be useful in ongoing intervention development. A program called Social Games for Autistic Adolescents (SAGA) is developing a game designed to teach autistic children how to solve in-game problems by observing avatars and their social cues.