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Memory for facial expressions on the autism spectrum: The influence of gaze direction and type of expression

Macinska, Sylwia; Jellema, Tjeerd


Sylwia Macinska


Face memory research in autism has largely neglected memory for facial expressions, in favor of memory for identity. This study in three experiments examined the role of gaze direction and type of expression on memory for facial expressions in relation to the autism spectrum. In the learning phase, four combinations of facial expressions (joy/anger) and gaze direction (toward/away), displayed by 16 different identities, were presented. In a subsequent surprise test the same identities were presented displaying neutral expressions, and the expression of each identity had to be recalled. In Experiment 1, typically-developed (TD) individuals with low and high Autism Quotient (AQ) scores were tested with three repetitions of each emotion/gaze combination, which did not produce any modulations. In Experiment 2, another group of TD individuals with low and high AQ scores were tested with eight repetitions, resulting in a “happy advantage” and a “direct gaze advantage”, but no interactions. In Experiment 3, individuals with high-functioning autism (HFA) and a matched TD group were tested using eight repetitions. The HFA group revealed no emotion or gaze effects, while the matched TD group showed both a happy and a direct gaze advantage, and again no interaction. The results suggest that in autistic individuals the memory for facial expressions is intact, but is not modulated by the person's expression type and gaze direction. We discuss whether anomalous implicit learning of facial cues could have contributed to these findings, its relevance for social intuition, and its possible contribution to social deficits in autism. Lay summary: It has often been found that memory for someone's face (facial identity) is less good in autism. However, it is not yet known whether memory for someone's facial expression is also less good in autism. In this study, the memory for expressions of joy and anger was investigated in typically-developed (TD) individuals who possessed either few or many autistic-like traits (Experiments 1 and 2), and in individuals with high-functioning autism (Experiment 3). The gaze direction was also varied (directed either toward, or away from, the observer). We found that TD individuals best remembered expressions of joy, and remembered expressions of both joy and anger better when the gaze was directed at them. These effects did not depend on the extent to which they possessed autistic-like traits. Autistic participants remembered the facial expression of a previously encountered person as good as TD participants did. However, in contrast to the TD participants, the memory of autistic participants was not influenced by the expression type and gaze direction of the previously encountered persons. We discuss whether this may lead to difficulties in the development of social intuition, which in turn could give rise to difficulties in social interaction that are characteristic for autism.


Macinska, S., & Jellema, T. (2022). Memory for facial expressions on the autism spectrum: The influence of gaze direction and type of expression. Autism Research, 15(5), 870-880.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jan 24, 2022
Online Publication Date Feb 12, 2022
Publication Date 2022-05
Deposit Date May 15, 2022
Publicly Available Date Feb 13, 2023
Journal Autism Research
Print ISSN 1939-3792
Electronic ISSN 1939-3806
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 15
Issue 5
Pages 870-880
Keywords Autistic-like traits; Facial expressions; Gaze direction; High-functioning autism; Memory; Social perception
Public URL


Accepted manuscript (569 Kb)

Copyright Statement
© 2022 International Society for Autism Research

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