Autism & Emotion


People with autism have trouble to merge all different stimuli into one meaningful proposition. Something as an emotion has to be extracted from several sources; someone’s explanation, bodily expression, facial expression, voice, the situation one is in.

Because children with autism process the information fragmented it will be very difficult for them to merge this information into one abstract level.
And this is exactly the problem. Children with autism might even be more accurate than we are in recognizing a facial expression, but they fail to see others emotions in its context, and it’s the context that plays a big role in understanding somebody’s state of mind.
And more often than you would be aware of, the facial expression of a person is not congruent to their emotion. A person can cry out of laughter but seem to have the facial expression of agonizing pain or disgust.

It has been all over journals and newspapers lately; There are more children with a diagnosis in the spectrum of autism nowadays. Recent expectations are that one out of a hundred children have a form of autism. A reason for this is that the social side of life becomes more important. At primary school children already have to work in groups from a young age. This is difficult for children with autism.


Autism is a developmental disorder with abnormalities in the brain.

The most characteristic deficit in autism is the impairment in social interaction which results in an inability to build relationships. Autistic children do not interpret emotions intuitively like other children do, which makes social interaction difficult.


Children with autism do have the ability to learn emotions, but they miss the intuitive way to perceive emotions.

The recognition of facial expressions of emotions depends upon two types of cognitive processing:

  • analytic processing, in which expression is perceived in terms of its properties alone and
  • holistic processing in which expression is viewed directly as a whole (perceptual Gestalt).

Autistic people are specifically impaired in the holistic knowledge of the emotional meaning of facial expression. Children with autism put facial parts together to construct one image. They have schemes in their heads of all they have learned so far...

When the corners of the mouth are directed upwards, somebody is probably happy....A 15-year old girl with autism stated; “Autism means that I think in pieces of a puzzle and everything that I see, hear, smell, taste or feel, enter in pieces of a puzzle. In my brain is a small defect which makes it difficult to make the good combinations between those puzzle-pieces.”

Intelligent children are quite good in developing internal schemes, so they can recognise emotions. They have a restricted capacity to empathise in an intuitive fashion, but learn to use more cognitive ways to circumvent their handicap.



Here, we get into the third difficulty children with autism encounter with interpreting emotions. Children with autism take everything very literally. To apply learned skills in a different context is very difficult for them. Once they have learned tears belong to sadness, it is very difficult to interpret tears differently in another context. Unfortunately there are more exceptions than rules when it comes to social situations, emotions taking place and behavioural aspects.

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