New study with scientifically sound test finds people with Asperger syndrome vary greatly in face recognition ability – can face recognition be a savant ability?

Face recognition performance of individuals with Asperger syndrome on the Cambridge face memory test.
Darren Hedley, Neil Brewer, Robyn Young
Autism Research.
Article first published online: 24 AUG 2011
DOI: 10.1002/aur.214

This article is still in press, but was published online last month. This study had 34 subjects with Asperger syndrome and 42 nonautistic controls. It appears that while around a quarter of the study subjects with Asperger syndrome in this study have prosopagnosia (as defined by a test score from 2 to 3 SD’s below normal or mean), Asperger syndrome (a type of autism) is also not inconsistent with superior performance on the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT), which is the best test of face recognition that I know of. Some features of the study that perhaps distinguish it from other studies of face recognition in autism are the use of a reliable and valid test of face recognition (Duchaine & Nakayama 2006), the study of face recognition in adults, not children, which is really important because face learning ability appears to be a skill that peaks at a surprisingly late stage in the life-span, into the third decade (Germine, Duchaine & Nakayama 2011), and if autistic people have a delay in development that could potentially affect or bias the results of studies of children and youths.

I was particularly interested in looking at the data for individual study subjects, but for some reason, in journal papers this seems to always be included in a miniature table that is either unreadable or unprintable, or both, or is absent altogether. Persevering, I was interested to find that none of the non-autistic study participants got a score in the prosopagnosia range, while eight out of 34 of the Asperger participants did, so there seems to be a definite association between having prosopagnosia and having a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome (AS). But at the other end of the spectrum of ability, the top score of the whole study, which I think must have been close to the super-recognizer range at 1.75, was achieved by a participant with AS, and there were two other with AS who got great scores. It appears that a fair proportion of those with AS got close to average scores. To the naked eye, it appears that there is a greater variation in face recognition ability in those with AS than in the normal adults tested. Why? Should we just accept this as a brute fact about AS, or should we look for special explanations for the top or bottom achievers in the AS group?

Is there something special about the top performers in the AS group? Given that there appears to be a link between autism and synaesthesia, and synaesthesia appears to be sometimes associated with savant-like superior ability in specific sensory or cognitive tasks (Banissy et al 2011) (Banissy, Walsh & Ward 2009) (Baron-Cohen et al 2007) (Simner, Mayo & Spiller 2009), and the association between savantism and autism is generally accepted, should we then ask if the three top-performing participants with AS might be synaesthetes who also have AS? If these connections are found in reality, should we then include superior face recognition (“super-recognizers”) among the many varied areas of mental performance that are regarded as savant skills and abilities? I have already discovered in a 2010 study of face recognition in the broader autism phenotype (BAP) one CFMT score from a father of an autistic child that appears to be close to a super-recognizer level of performance (Wilson et al 2010), as defined as two or more SD’s above the mean. I would have thought that this isn’t what researchers would expect to find in studies of autism or the BAP which use study participants who aren’t selected for any particular level of face recognition ability.

I’ve got to wonder whether people (children?) whose main social disability is prosopagnosia have been clumsily lumped into the category of autism. It appears that over three-quarters of the autistic subjects did not have a “severe face recognition impairment”, so we certainly can’t say that a severe impairment is typical of the group of people who have Asperger syndrome (AS) in this study, and my reading of the “enhanced perceptual functioning model” of autism seems to suggest that autistic people should have an advantage at visual tasks (Samson et al 2011). We know that prosopagnosia is a fairly common but not well recognized disability, and that the diagnosis rates for things like AS and autism have been climbing steadily for a long time. The question of why this has happened is one that has provoked huge controversy – is there a genuine increase in autism rates, or are more and more people being placed into the category, due to lower thresholds of “severity” required for a diagnosis, or the category of autism indiscriminately devouring other categories of people, such as the intellectually disabled and other uncommon or rare disabilities?

The possibility that prosopagnosics can be (incorrectly?) identified as cases of autism was demonstrated in a story about prosopagnosia from the Australian science television series Catalyst which was broadcast in 2007 (see link below). An anecdote about two children in a family which was later found to have members with developmental prosopagnosia, who had previously been diagnosed with autism, was recounted by a prosopagnosia researcher from Macquarie University and dramatized on the show. I should point out that neither of the face perception tests shown in this story are the CFMT. One face recognition test shown in the Catalyst story uses the faces of famous people and it relies upon the person being tested already knowing about the famous person and being able to give a name for the famous face, two tasks which are not face recognition, so as a test of face recognition it is far from pure and perfect.


Banissy, Michael J., Garrido, Lucia, Kusnir, Flor, Duchaine, Bradley, Walsh, Vincent and Ward, Jamie Superior Facial Expression, But Not Identity Recognition, in Mirror-Touch Synesthesia. Journal of Neuroscience. February 2, 2011, 31(5):1820-1824. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5759-09.2011

Banissy, Michael J., Walsh, Vincent & Ward, Jamie Enhanced sensory perception in synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research. 2009 Jul;196(4):565-71. Epub 2009 Jun 17.

Baron-Cohen S, Bor D, Billington J, Asher JE, Wheelwright S and Ashwin C. Savant memory in a man with colour form-number synaesthesia and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Consciousness Studies. volume 14, number 9-10, September-October 2007, p. 237-251.

Duchaine, Brad & Nakayama, Ken The Cambridge Face Memory Test: Results for neurologically intact individuals and an investigation of its validity using inverted face stimuli and prosopagnosic participants. Neuropsychologia 44 (2006) 576–585.

Face blindness. Catalyst. ABC. broadcast 19/07/2007  (This story showed face recognition testing at Macquarie University and includes a small sample of the tests which viewers can try)

Germine, Laura T., Duchaine, Bradley, Nakayama, Ken Where cognitive development and aging meet: Face learning ability peaks after age 30. Cognition, Volume 118, Issue 2, February 2011, Pages 201-210

Hedley, Darren, Brewer, Neil, Young, Robyn Face recognition performance of individuals with Asperger syndrome on the Cambridge face memory test. Autism Research. Article first published online: 24 AUG 2011         DOI: 10.1002/aur.214

Samson, Fabienne, Mottron, Laurent, Soulieres, Isabelle & Zeffiro, Thomas A. Enhanced visual functioning in autism: an ALE meta-analysis. Human Brain Mapping. Article first published online: 4 APR 2011 DOI: 10.1002/hbm.21307

Simner, Julia, Mayo, Neil, Spiller, Mary-Jane A foundation for savantism? Visuo-spatial synaesthetes present with cognitive benefits. Cortex. Volume 45, issue 10, November-December 2009, Pages 1246-1260.

Wilson CE, Freeman P, Brock J, Burton AM, Palermo R Facial Identity Recognition in the Broader Autism Phenotype. PLoS ONE 2010 5(9): e12876. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012876

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  • Steve R.  On April 6, 2012 at 11:24 am

    I am most definitely a super recognizer. No doubt abt it. I also recognize patterns, trends and sequences much sooner than most folks. Been this way for 40 years give or take.
    I’d love to put this ability to the test as well as Good Use! Any thoughts re where I might reach out to or to Whom??
    I’d appreciate any/all well i tentionedreplies.

    Much thanks.

    • C. Wright  On April 6, 2012 at 12:38 pm

      Hello Steve! Thanks for your comment. I’ve been too busy to write a post about this interesting article, but I think you might find it of interest: I think Mo Costandi might have overstated the relationship between face recognition and the things observed in the study, but on the other hand, face recognition is I guess a subset of object recognition. I’ve read anecdotal accounts in the past in which there was speculation that the best radiologists often display a particular personality type or personality quirks, which is interesting as being very good in that occupation would also presumably be the result of special ability in visual recognition.

      A question for you Steve, if you don’t mind. Would you describe yourself as a “visual thinker”? I know it is hard to compare one’s own thoughts with others.

      You would love to test your ability in face recognition? Have you read my post here?
      I had little luck getting my abilities tested or documented thru any academic or professional. The only test result that I was given after testing at a WA university was only documented in an email, and I was never told if the test that I did was the long or the short form of the CFMT, which is important to interpreting my score. You could try contacting the world leaders in prosopagnosia and super-recognizer research to ask about access to the CFMT and the BTWF test, people such as Duchaine, Nakayama, Jansari. Maybe you will have more luck with them than I have. You could also approach any local university that does research into visual or face recognition, or look into paying a professional psychologist to be tested, but be wary that there are a number of dated and invalid face recognition tests out there, and psychologists don’t seem to have much of a clue about face recognition or testing. As far as i can tell the only way currently to gain ready access to a valid face recognition/face memory test is to go online and be a subject in this study: Last time I checked they used the CFMT. REmember to take a screen printout of your score! Make sure you printer is ready to go before you start the testing.

      You want to put your ability to good use? You care about this, but in much of the world there is barely any awareness that there are major differences in face recognition ability. In London the police force uses and recruits into an elite squad of super-recognizers. In the part of Australia where I live I’ve been told that the police force doesn’t even include ANY face recognition testing in the battery of testing in their recruitment process. Zip, nothing, nothing to stop a prosopagnosic from becoming a police officer out on the streets, figting crime, not knowing a Ivan Bloody Milat from any other bloke. But you and I know that face and visual recognition are potentially very important and valuable assets. Some occupations that might possibly utilize the special gifts of the super-recognizer might be police work, private detective, security (including interpreting CCTV images), chicken sexing (don’t laugh, I’m serious), radiologist (need qualifications) and possibly other medical specialties. Super-recognition could also be used to identify the signs of genetic syndromes in the faces of people, applicable to genetic counselling, and also be used to identify blood relatives, applicable to research for family history or family reunion. I would think to use the skill in such jobs you would also need qualifications etc.

      Do you know what the Dunning-Kruger Effect is? Any person who has a special ability is up against the Dunning-Kruger Effect if they wish to gain recognition of their ability. The Wikiedia has an article on it.

      Good luck Steve!

    • Anna  On December 6, 2013 at 8:49 pm

      Hi Steve, my name is Anna and I am an UK based PhD researcher looking for super-recognizers for my eye-movement research. If you live in UK and would be interested in taking part, please contact me. Our lab will cover your travel expenses and reimburse you for your time. Contact details are available here- Cheers, Anna

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