Tag Archives: Broader Autism Phenotype

Computer algorithm links facial masculinity to autism

This is certainly an interesting study, and I can’t see any obvious problem with the way it was done, but as with any study of autism, I believe questions about the validity of the diagnosis of autism must raise questions about the validity of any study of people (adults or children) who have been given that diagnosis.

Is autism a coherent, consistent, clearly-defined, clearly-delineated, natural category that explains purported cases better than alternative forms of diagnosis such as medical, genetic or sensory diagnostic categories? I doubt it. Let’s be clear; autism is nothing more than a multi-faceted description of behaviours, none of them unique to autism, and some quite common among people who have intellectual or sensory disability. There’s no biology, medicine or psychophysics in the core definitions of autism. I know of no validated, objective test designed to measure any of the sensory aspects of autism. Sure thing, autism is associated with countless congenital and genetic disorders, but the scientific validity of those categories doesn’t rub-off onto autism as a scientific category.

I’m a skeptic about the category of autism and I also have questions about diagnostic processes relating to autism and related disorders. We know that children who are purely and solely cases of prosopagnosia can be misdiagnosed with autism, and the literature on gifted and talented children includes many claims that the same can happen to G&T kids. I suspect that intelligence levels are a confounding factor in many studies that are supposed to explore autism or a broader autism phenotype, and I question whether the trend of identifying children as autistic when in the past they might have been identified as intellectually disabled was the great step forward that it is supposed to have been. There’s also the fact that the “testosterone theory of autism” has been around for many years now and has been widely popularized. It is certainly possible that parents and clinicians have been influenced to expect to see “autistic” behaviour in children who are perceived as more masculine than their peers, due to facial appearance or other traits. This conceivably could have a flow-on effect of increasing the chances that a boy or girl with masculine features might be identified as autistic, and this could be behind the effect found in this study.

These kinds of doubts are why in this blog I have never explored autism in terms of facial phenotypes or in terms of face perception deficits in any depth or with much interest. It’s not that I don’t see a problem or problems in these cases. I do, but I believe it is probable that one day in the distant future scientists will look back on the history of the sciences of the mind and wonder why we spent so much time and money researching autism, a concept that was a long, dark, gold-paved dead-end in the journey of scientific progress, while disability remained a constant issue.

Computer algorithm links facial masculinity to autism.  25 August 2017.

http://www.news.uwa.edu.au/201708259876/international/computer-algorithm-links-facial-masculinity-autism

Hypermasculinised facial morphology in boys and girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder and its association with symptomatology.
Diana Weiting Tan, Syed Zulqarnain Gilani, Murray T. Maybery, Ajmal Mian, Anna Hunt, Mark Walters & Andrew J. O. Whitehouse
Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 9348 (2017)
doi:10.1038/s41598-017-09939-y
Received:
06 March 2017
Accepted:
31 July 2017
Published online:
24 August 2017

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-09939-y

 

 

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    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aur.214/abstract

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.

References

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  http://www.faceblind.org/social_perception/papers/Banissy11JN.pdf       http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/content/abstract/31/5/1820

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. http://www.springerlink.com/content/406581u3507un270/   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19533108

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.  http://www.imprint.co.uk/jcs_14_9-10.html

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.
http://visionlab.harvard.edu/members/ken/Ken%20papers%20for%20web%20page/137neuropsychologiaDuchaine2006.pdf

Face blindness. Catalyst. ABC. broadcast 19/07/2007  http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s1982889.htm  (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 201-210http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027710002611

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    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/aur.214/abstract

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 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hbm.21307/abstract

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.
http://www.cortexjournal.net/article/S0010-9452(09)00221-4/abstract

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
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0012876

A link between autism and super-recognizer ability, or am I reading this wrong?

I was just having a look at an Australian/UK study of face recogniton ability that was published last year in the open-access science journal PLoS One. The subjects in one of the two studies reported in this paper were parents of autistic kids, and they were tested with the Cambridge Face Memory Test (CFMT). The CFMT happens to be one of the tests that were used in the 2009 paper by Russell, Duchaine and Nakayama that established the concept of the super-recognizer. There are a couple of problems with comparing scores between these different papers – the 2009 paper used both the short and long forms of the CFMT and gave raw scores, while the 2010 paper used only the 72 question short form of the CFMT and gave age-standardized z-scores based on a study of the Australian population. But having looked at the 2009 study I don’t think the long form does that much better a job of sorting the super-recognizers from the controls than the short form does.

I’m happy to stand corrected, but to my eye it looks as though there is an interesting score in the CFMT reported in Figure 2 of the 2010 paper. If the vertical axis is in standard deviations then I guess that the top score from a father of an autistic child that is nearly level with the number two is close to super-recognizer class. He almost looks like an outlier. According to the authors of the 2010 paper, none of the parents of autistic kids in this study scored in the range of prosopagnosics, who apparently typically score less than two standard deviations below the control mean.

Definitions of prosopagnosiacs and super-recognizers can be found in the 2009 paper; “Most developmental prosopagnosics we have tested in our laboratories score around 2–3 SDs below normal on the CFMT short form. In comparison, 3 super-recognizers scored around 2 SDs above the mean on the CFMT long form.” It appears that the short and long forms of the CFMT are comparable with regard to SDs and face-blindness, and also I presume with regard to super-recognizers. What would really be interesting would be to see what kinds of scores the autistic kids would get on these tests.

References

Wilson CE, Freeman P, Brock J, Burton AM, Palermo R (2010) Facial Identity Recognition in the Broader Autism Phenotype. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12876. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012876
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0012876

Russell R, Duchaine B, Nakayama K Super-recognizers: people with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. 2009 Apr;16(2):252-7. http://pbr.psychonomic-journals.org/content/16/2/252.full.pdf      http://visionlab.harvard.edu/members/ken/Ken%20papers%20for%20web%20page/157Russell_supersPBR.pdf