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Facial Recognition and ASD


We had the opportunity this summer to do some reading on facial recognition and ASD.

It is fairly common knowledge that most individuals with ASD demonstrate some difficulty compared to their peers at recognizing and labelling facial expressions that represent different emotions. In our experience it seems less commonly understood that some individuals with ASD are significantly less able than their peers to recognize and/or remember the faces of even people they interact with regularly (e.g., their classmates). Although this can also occur in individuals without ASD where the disability is called prosopagnosia, there is a significant body of research that suggests this is more common in those with ASD compared to individuals without an ASD diagnosis.

Although studies differ depending on how tests were conducted, results on facial recognition studies indicate that as many as 30% of individuals with ASD may display significant difficulty recognizing faces compared to their peers. Studies on teaching facial recognition strategies, such as discrimination training, are hard to find and those that we could find were small single subject studies or failed to determine whether instruction in a lab setting resulted in improved recognition skills in day to day settings. It appears that little is yet known as to how best to address this weakness in children or adults with ASD.

So what does this mean for educators and parents? We think it is important to consider the possibility that your student may have facial recognition difficulties when you see any of the following behaviours:

Watch for these behaviours:

  • The student cannot seem to learn the names of his classmates… he may have difficulty distinguishing one face from another. It does not necessarily mean he does not care, is not interested, or is not “trying hard enough”.
  • The student stares intensely at a specific feature of someone’s face… he may be trying to fix in his memory an aspect of the face that will allow him to remember the individual.
  • The student persists in calling individuals with similar features the same name (e.g., all tall dark men with glasses are “Uncle Bob”).
    We also think it is important to recognize how this difficulty might impact the student’s ability to develop successful social relationships.

Consider that:

  • Other students may get irritated and think the student with ASD lacks the “smarts” to remember his or her name. They may interpret the behaviour as uncaring.
  • The student with ASD may have difficulty “finding” the individual they know has been a good playmate in the past, especially in crowded or unstructured situations (e.g., recess).
  • The student who has begun to recognize his facial recognition problems and is compensating for it by staring, may be unaware that this behaviour can make others uncomfortable.
  • The student may successfully learn to distinguish one face and will “stick” to that individual at all costs. He may become distressed if that individual is absent or uninterested, in part because he cannot remember the names of any other peers or recognize who else he may have played with previously.
  • A lack of ability to remember names and faces may contribute to or exacerbate social anxiety.

How can we help?

  • Provide assistance to the student in finding “friendly” and “understanding” peers. If the child has facial recognition difficulties he may need ongoing help rather than simply showing him once and then assuming he’ll be fine on his own the next time. A peer buddy system may help.
  • Point out helpful recognition features when you introduce children. For example, say “This Monica. I like the freckles on her nose and her big blue eyes.”
  • Provide photos of classmates to the student with ASD, labelled with their names. Send them home for practice, highlighting the names of the children who seem most “connected” to him or her at school.
  • Keep seating arrangements the same in class in terms of who sits by the student with ASD. It may be easier for him or her to remember that “John” is on the left even if he can’t easily pick out John on the playground.
  • Consider educating the peers about the difficulty the student with ASD may be having, particularly if the student is socially outgoing but continues to address children by the wrong names. Explain that they should not take the behaviour as a personal slight, but should calmly let the student know their correct name.
  • The older student with ASD may be helped to advocate for himself by talking with him about how he can explain his difficulty to others. For example, “If I don’t say “hi” to you when I pass you in the hall, it’s because I have difficulty recognizing faces, not because I’m trying to ignore you!”

Bottom line:

Consider the fact that a component of the social difficulties exhibited by an individual with ASD may be related to a weakness in facial recognition and do what you can to help that student compensate for the problem or build his/her skills in this area.
Have a great school year!


Weigelt, Sarah; Koldewyn, Kami; Kanwisher, Nancy. Face identity recognition in autism spectrum disorders: A review of behavioural studies Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews, 36 (2012), 1060-1084. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/bcs/nklab/media/pdfs/weigelt-kanwisher-2012-1060.pdf August, 2013

Cracking the Enigma: Why do (some) autistic kids struggle to recognize faces? Retrieved from http://crackingtheenigma.blogspot.ca/2012/07/why-do-some-autistic-kids-struggle-to.html August, 2013