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Dev Neuropsychol. 2005;27(3):403-24.

Understanding the nature of face processing impairment in autism: insights from behavioral and electrophysiological studies.

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University of Washington Autism Center, University of Washington, Seattle 98195, USA.


This article reviews behavioral and electrophysiological studies of face processing and discusses hypotheses for understanding the nature of face processing impairments in autism. Based on results of behavioral studies, this study demonstrates that individuals with autism have impaired face discrimination and recognition and use atypical strategies for processing faces characterized by reduced attention to the eyes and piecemeal rather than configural strategies. Based on results of electrophysiological studies, this article concludes that face processing impairments are present early in autism, by 3 years of age. Such studies have detected abnormalities in both early (N170 reflecting structural encoding) and late (NC reflecting recognition memory) stages of face processing. Event-related potential studies of young children and adults with autism have found slower speed of processing of faces, a failure to show the expected speed advantage of processing faces versus nonface stimuli, and atypical scalp topography suggesting abnormal cortical specialization for face processing. Other electrophysiological studies have suggested that autism is associated with early and late stage processing impairments of facial expressions of emotion (fear) and decreased perceptual binding as reflected in reduced gamma during face processing. This article describes two types of hypotheses-cognitive/perceptual and motivational/affective--that offer frameworks for understanding the nature of face processing impairments in autism. This article discusses implications for intervention.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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