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Emotions and ASD - MINDS@UW Home

Teaching Facial Expression Recognition
to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Kia Schilling, Mariah Yeager, and Kayla Lake
Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders
Vicki Samelson, Ph.D., Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders
University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Eau Claire, Wisconsin

Difficulty interpreting facial expressions is a typical characteristic of
individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
The Empathizing-Systemizing Theory suggests that children with ASD have
difficulty empathizing, but have a compulsive need to classify, analyze, and
construct nonhuman systems (Golan, et al., 2009). This could explain why
social interactions are often difficult for children with ASD.
According to the Hyper-Systemizing Theory, individuals with ASD prefer
motion determined by physical patterns (Golan, et al., 2009).
Research has shown that both video modeling and Social Stories have been
successful in teaching social skills to children with ASD; however, data
regarding which of the interventions is more effective and efficient in teaching
facial expression recognition is lacking.
This pilot study was designed to test whether a modified Social Stories
intervention or a variation of a video modeling intervention (The Transporters)
is more effective in teaching children with ASD to
recognize facial

A language assessment was conducted during the baseline phase to determine whether
participants had sufficient language development to benefit from the interventions.
An initial baseline task identified facial expressions that the children were not able to
label. Participants were shown one photograph at a time in a full-screen power point
presentation and were asked How is this person feeling?
Several facial expressions were targeted with each participant during the study.
A Social Story was created for each of the facial expressions that the children were not
able to label, with illustrations that highlighted facial expressions.
The Social Stories and quiz questions were created to match the specific emotions,
narrative structure, and language structures used in The Transporters.
Progress for both interventions was tracked during each session with the quizzes and
a repetition of the baseline task to measure generalization.
Each child was seen for 6 intervention sessions. Presentation of the two interventions
was counterbalanced.

Social Stories

Participant 1 Results

Social Stories is a widely-used intervention to help individuals recognize,
express, and understand emotions (Gray, 1999).
Social Stories allow for human interaction, where the reader and listener are
able to discuss important points of the story. Social Stories use both static
images and text in order to explicitly explain previously-confusing situations
to the individual for whom the story was developed.
Our study utilized a modified version of Carol Grays Social Stories that
focused on facial expressions and emotions.

The Transporters, a DVD series, aims to improve facial expression recognition
for children with ASD, by using animated vehicles with predictable
physical patterns, which according to the Hyper-Systemizing Theory are
preferred by children with ASD (Golan, et al., 2009).
Children with ASD are attracted to vehicles that follow specific tracks and
humans only limited ability to make decisions regarding the vehicles
path (Golan, et al., 2009).
The vehicles in The Transporters stories follow specific predictable tracks, but
model human facial expressions and emotions.

Participant 1: Male, 6 years, 8 months old; diagnosis of mildmoderate Autism.
Participant 2 : Male, 6 years, 3 months old; diagnosis of mildmoderate Autism.

Participant 2 Results

Comparison of Two Interventions
Results for this participant were variable. There was a notable change in the participants facial
expression recognition during the generalization task for Social Stories, although quiz scores did
not reflect this learning. More intervention sessions might facilitate learning.
In the final two sessions, participant 2s performance increased on the quizzes for both
interventions, also indicating that more intervention sessions for each target emotion might
facilitate learning.
Factors Affecting Results
Participant 2 experienced significant routine changes while this study was being conducted.
It was noted that he experienced irregular sleeping patterns throughout the study.
He received two Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP) sessions the same day he attended
each of our sessions; he was brought to sessions by various caregivers.
His Speech-Language Pathologist indicated that wh-questions were one of his IEP goals, which
might have influenced his ability to comprehend the quiz questions for both interventions.
He did show improvement on the baseline generalization task, which only required
comprehension of How is he/she feeling?

Discussion/Future Research
Comparison of Two Interventions
Facial expression recognition did not improve in the generalization task but an increase in the
percentage correct for some of the quizzes associated with each intervention was observed.
Afraid was targeted throughout the study and mastered at the end, indicating a need to spend
more time on each emotion for both interventions.
Sorry was also targeted for four of the sessions and was mastered at the end, also indicating a
need to spend more time on each target emotion.
Beginning with session 4, examiners decreased their pace and increased scaffolding while
reading the Social Stories, resulting in increased quiz performance.
The number of different words used to label facial expressions increased over the course of
study (even though the words were not always correct), suggesting that this participant
acquiring new vocabulary.
Eye Contact
The participants eye contact with the examiner during the Social Stories increased steadily
throughout the study.
Factors Affecting Results
The participant may have experienced some confusion because we targeted more
than one emotion per session.

The Transporters is a DVD series of video modeling that incorporates the appeal of
vehicles as systems to gain the childs attention. Children watched fifteenminute episodes, followed by a DVD quiz that asked them to identify emotions and
facial expressions.
Social Stories were written to match the same emotions depicted in The
Transporters. Each Social Story was illustrated with static cartoon pictures, followed
by a set of questions asking participants to identify emotions and facial expressions.

This study illustrates the uniqueness of each child with ASD. It also indicates a need for
further research in order to determine which interventions are more effective and efficient
for children with ASD. There are many factors in teaching/learning the complex task of
facial expression recognition, so there are many directions for future studies to take.
This study demonstrated the need to utilize a slower pace and include scaffolding while
reading Social Stories in order to improve quiz scores.
Future Directions:
Larger-scale study with children who have a range of severities of ASD, that also includes
a control group.
Increase the number of intervention sessions for each intervention and emotion.
Include a condition where emotion vocabulary is used in multiple contexts, to facilitate
Experiment with the types of illustrations used in Social Stories.
More-closely evaluate the effect of gaze-direction (eye contact) on facial expression
More-closely evaluate the types of photographs used for the baseline measure.

Selected References:
The Transporters (2006). London, UK: Changing Media Development. Available from: http://www.thetransporters.com/index.html
Gray, C. (1994/2000). The new social story book; illustrated edition. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.
Gray C. (1999). From Both Sides Now: Teaching Social Understanding with Social Stories and Comic Strip Conversations.
Golan, O., Ashwin, E., Granader, Y., McClintock, S., Day, K., Leggett, V., Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Enhancing Emotion Recognition in
Children with Autism Spectrum Conditions: An Intervention Using Animated Vehicles with Real Emotional Faces. Journal of Autism and
Developmental Disorders, 40, 269-279. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-009-0862-9
Tottenham, N., Tanaka, J., Leon, A.C., McCarry, T., Nurse, M., Hare, T.A., Marcus, D.J., Westerlund, A., Casey, B.J., Nelson, C.A. (2009).
The NimStim set of facial expressions: Judgments from untrained research participants. Psychiatry Research, 168(3), 242-249.

Contact Kia Schilling: [email protected]

SPOTS House, Chippewa Falls
Karen Schilling CCC-SLP, Prairie du Chien Schools
Nina Tottenham: Nimstim photos
Shannon Jehn, Social Stories Illustrations
UWEC IRB and Office of Research and Sponsored
UWEC Center for Communication Disorders
Our participants and their families

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