UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Social motivation, visual experience, and face recognition in autism spectrum disorder Kamensek, Todd


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by challenges in social communication, interaction, and repetitive and restricted behaviors and interests. Among these difficulties, individuals with ASD commonly exhibit moderate impairments in face recognition. In this thesis, we conduct three studies to examine competing experience- and perceptual-based accounts of face recognition challenges in ASD. The first study investigates a perceptual/genetic hypothesis that suggests a shared etiology of face recognition challenges between ASD and developmental prosopagnosia (DP), a condition characterized by severe face recognition impairments. We compare face recognition ability and social motivation in adults with ASD, DP, and a non-ASD, non-DP comparison group. Our findings revealed that a DP-like subtype within ASD cannot solely account for the face recognition challenges experienced across the diverse ASD population. The second study examines daily visual exposure to faces in adults with ASD in comparison to that of non-autistic adults. Experience-based accounts, such as the social motivation hypothesis, predict reduced attention to faces in ASD, which in turn give rise to challenges due to lack of experience. Consistent with this prediction, we observe reduced exposure durations to familiar faces in ASD, and atypical exposure faces viewed from farther distances and favoring profile pose over frontal, indicating patterns inconsistent with typical social interactions. In the third study, we examine whether this atypical exposure to profile poses is associated with improved encoding and recognition of faces viewed in this pose. However, our results do not support this prediction as individuals with ASD perform notably worse in profile face recognition compared to non-autistic controls. Collectively, this thesis contributes to the current understanding of face recognition abilities in ASD. It challenges the notion of a single etiological factor accounting for all face challenges in ASD, but rather suggests that a combination of experience-based and perceptual-based factors separately or in combination, lead to face recognition challenges in ASD. The results inform future investigations and may pave the way for potential intervention strategies aimed at enhancing face recognition skills in individuals with ASD.

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