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Autism May Hinder Ability to Read Body Language

Trouble seems to lie in visual processing, researchers say

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 5 (HealthDay News) -- Autism may hinder a person's ability to see and read body language, making it difficult to gauge other people's feelings, a British study finds.

Dr. Anthony Atkinson, of the Durham University psychology department, found that adults with autism spectrum disorder had trouble identifying emotions, such as anger or happiness, while watching short video clips of body movements. The videos had no images of faces or sound.

Those who had the most difficulty identifying emotions also did poorly on a task in which they had to determine the direction of a group of dots on a computer screen. Adults without autism generally performed well on both tests, the researcher noted.

The study findings, which appear online in the journal Neuropsychologia, suggest that visual processing problems could contribute to the difficulties with social interaction experienced by people with autism.

"The way people move their bodies tells us a lot about their feelings or intentions, and we use this information on a daily basis to communicate with each other. We use others' body movements and postures, as well as people's faces and voices, to gauge their feelings," Atkinson said in a news release from the university. "People with autism are less able to use these cues to make accurate judgments about how others are feelings. Our research attempts to find out why."

Atkinson said these findings "point to a difficulty in perceiving or attending to motion as a contributor to the problem of gauging people's emotions. We now need to look further to see exactly how this happens and how this may combine with potential difficulties in attention."

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about autism.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Durham University, news release, Aug. 5, 2009

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