Autism leaves kids lost in face

By age 3, children diagnosed with autism have already begun a retreat into social isolation. Psychologist Geraldine Dawson of the University of Washington in Seattle and her coworkers have found that the children’s brain-wave activity indicates an inability even to distinguish their own mothers’ faces from those of strangers.

In social situations, these children focus on other peoples’ mouths rather than their eyes, Dawson theorizes. As a result, she says, the development of the brain’s face-recognition system (SN: 5/18/02, p. 307: Baby Facial: Infants monkey with face recognition) gets derailed.

Autism typically isn’t diagnosed until at least age 3. The condition includes severe difficulties in interacting and communicating with others.

Dawson’s group studied 34 children with autism or a related disorder, 16 with developmental problems unrelated to autism, and 19 who had no developmental disorders. The kids were 3 to 4 years old.

Each child wore a cap holding 64 electrodes that recorded brain-wave responses as experimenters presented images of his or her mother’s face, an unfamiliar woman’s face, a favorite toy from home, and an unfamiliar toy.

Spikes in the brain’s electrical activity signaled recognition of the mother’s face and favorite toy in both healthy children and those with disorders other than autism. Brain-wave responses of children with autism indicated that they distinguished favorite toys from novel ones but not their mothers’ faces from strangers’, the researchers report in the May/June Child Development.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.