Recognition of Face and Non-Face Stimuli in Autistic Spectrum Disorder


  • Grant sponsors: INCORE, grant number: 043318; GEBACO, grant number: 028696; C.F. was supported by a Swiss National Science Foundation (FNS) Fellowship for young researchers during the period of this research.
  • Conflict of interest: None.


The ability to remember faces is critical for the development of social competence. From childhood to adulthood, we acquire a high level of expertise in the recognition of facial images, and neural processes become dedicated to sustaining competence. Many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have poor face recognition memory; changes in hairstyle or other non-facial features in an otherwise familiar person affect their recollection skills. The observation implies that they may not use the configuration of the inner face to achieve memory competence, but bolster performance in other ways. We aimed to test this hypothesis by comparing the performance of a group of high-functioning unmedicated adolescents with ASD and a matched control group on a “surprise” face recognition memory task. We compared their memory for unfamiliar faces with their memory for images of houses. To evaluate the role that is played by peripheral cues in assisting recognition memory, we cropped both sets of pictures, retaining only the most salient central features. ASD adolescents had poorer recognition memory for faces than typical controls, but their recognition memory for houses was unimpaired. Cropping images of faces did not disproportionately influence their recall accuracy, relative to controls. House recognition skills (cropped and uncropped) were similar in both groups. In the ASD group only, performance on both sets of task was closely correlated, implying that memory for faces and other complex pictorial stimuli is achieved by domain-general (non-dedicated) cognitive mechanisms. Adolescents with ASD apparently do not use domain-specialized processing of inner facial cues to support face recognition memory. Autism Res 2013, 6: 550–560. © 2013 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.