Facing Off Against Autism

Can a computer game help autistic children recognize faces and expressions?

By Shannon McCalluml

What’s the first thing you notice when you enter a room? For most of us, it’s people or, more specifically, people’s faces. Individuals with autism, however, are just as likely to first notice a chair, book or painting.

Dr. Jim Tanaka, a UVic cognitive neuroscientist, has developed a
computer game that may improve the face-processing abilities of children
with autism by jumpstarting the area of the brain that recognizes faces.
“Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) seem to have deficits in
processing faces-not only with recognizing to whom the face belongs, but
also with the emotional expression of a face,” explains Tanaka, whose
research focuses on the perceptual processes involved in expert object
recognition. This face-processing problem may explain why these children
seem to have deficits in their social and emotional abilities.

To develop “face expertise” in children with autism, Tanaka has
developed the Let’s Face It! computer program. The research is a
collaborative project with the Yale Child Study Centre, funded by a
$2-million five-year grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
One of Tanaka’s goals is to confirm whether children with ASD really
do have deficits in face processing. “We’re trying to understand how the
cognitive and neurological processes of children with ASD differ from those
of non-ASD children,” he says.

A second goal is to find out whether using Let’s Face It! in an
intensive intervention program can teach children with ASD to become experts at recognizing faces and whether face training produces changes in brain activity.

The program is a series of games that involve distinguishing faces
from other everyday objects, attaching labels to facial expressions and
interpreting the meaning of facial cues in a social context. Since the speed
and accuracy of the responses are recorded by the program, it’s possible to
identify the tasks with which the child has difficulty. The games increase
in difficulty with each successful completion of a level, enabling the
children to sharpen their face-processing skills.

But the work doesn’t end when the computer is turned off. “We know
that children with ASD are pretty good with computers, but it’s important
for them to have one-on-one interaction with people, as well, since that’s
what they tend to have problems with,” says Tanaka.

So, enter “face tutors,” who work individually with the kids using
lessons tailored for each child’s specific needs. Face tutors help the
children build on their face-processing skills by performing activities
similar to those in the games, but in a more realistic and demanding social

Assisting in the project are two grads of Oberlin College in Ohio,
Dave Swanson and Martha Kaiser, who came to Victoria to continue working on the project with Tanaka when he left Oberlin to join UVic’s psychology
department this year. Such dedication is what Tanaka means when he refers to this project as a “labour of love.”

“In my other lifetime, I was a teacher pursuing a master’s degree in
special education, so I’ve kind of come full circle. While we’re excited
about the scientific questions that the research raises, we’re equally
motivated by the benefits that the project might produce for children with

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