Coming face to face with autism

01 Apr 2009 13:36:00.000

PA 93/09

Volunteers are needed to help increase our understanding of the social and communication difficulties experienced by people with autism. In the first study of its kind researchers will use video clips of spontaneously produced facial expressions in a real life social context to explore emotion recognition in autism.

This research, carried out at The University of Nottingham, will go beyond the more artificial emotion recognition tasks that have previously been used. The eye movements of volunteers will also be tracked to find out which areas of the face were looked at while volunteers make spontaneous judgements.

The study is being conducted by PhD student Sarah Cassidy who is a member of the Autism Research Team based in the School of Psychology. Her work has been funded through a PhD studentship from the Economic and Social Research Council.

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Her work will investigate if people with autism look at faces, particularly in the eye region, differently.  If so, does this have any relationship with their ability to recognise emotions in others? What is their understanding of emotions in different social contexts? And as a consequence, how difficult is it for them to socialise and communicate with other people?


Sarah said: “Previous research has suggested that people with autism have difficulty inferring emotion from faces due to lack of attention to the eyes and increased attention to the mouth.  However not all studies have shown differences in emotion recognition and eye gaze.  There is also little research asking what role reading emotion from the eyes plays in social communication difficulties in autism, with a few studies suggesting a relationship with social competence and responsiveness.”


Sarah is looking for volunteers aged 18 and over who have a diagnoses of autism, autism spectrum disorder or Aspergers syndrome. She also wants to hear from typically developing people, also over the age of 18, who are interested in helping with her research.


Participants will view 21 video clips of facial expressions and will be asked whether the person in the video received chocolate, monopoly money or a home made gift. Each volunteer will have their eye movements measured and will be asked to provide an emotion label for the facial expression. The test will also include logic and vocabulary tasks and an interview and short questionnaire to provide a measure of how challenging each volunteer finds socialising and communicating with others.


Sarah’s supervisor, Professor Peter Mitchell from the School of Psychology, said: “The procedures developed by Sarah allow us to investigate how people with autism process social information under conditions that are close to real life. Previous research has been somewhat contrived and unlike real life. High functioning people with autism tend to perform well on those artificial tasks and therefore this is not particularly informative about the social difficulties suffered by people with autism. Sarah’s study has features that are much closer to challenges faced by people with autism in real life and therefore has potential to tell us precisely what aspects of social functioning are difficult for them.”


The test, which will take place at the School of Psychology on University Park, will take approximately two hours and can be conducted in two sessions. Volunteers will be reimbursed for their time and travel expenses up to £5. Sarah can be contacted on 0115 846 7362 or email


— Ends —


Notes to editors

: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.


More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.


The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's “only truly global university”, it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.


Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives ( in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.

Story credits

More information is available from Sarah Cassidy on +44 (0)115 846 7362,
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

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