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Abstract

Face recognition impairments are well documented in older children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD); however, the developmental course of the deficit is not clear. This study investigates the progressive specialization of face recognition skills in children with and without ASD. Experiment 1 examines human and monkey face recognition in 2-year-old children with ASD, matched for nonverbal mental age (NVMA) with developmentally delayed (DD) children, and typically developing children (TD), using the Visual Paired Comparison (VPC) paradigm. Results indicate that, consistent with the other-species effect, TD controls show enhanced recognition of human but not monkey faces; however, neither the ASD nor the DD group show evidence of face recognition regardless of the species. Experiment 2 examines the same question in a group of older 3- to 4-year-old developmentally disabled (ASD and DD) children as well as in typical controls. In this experiment, both human and monkey faces are recognized by all three groups. The results of Experiments 1 and 2 suggest that difficulties in face processing, as measured by the VPC paradigm, are common in toddlers with ASD as well as DD, but that these deficits tend to disappear by early preschool age. In addition, the experiments show that higher efficacy of incidental encoding and recognition of facial identity in a context of passive exposure is positively related to nonverbal cognitive skills and age, but not to overall social interaction skills or greater attention to faces exhibited in naturalistic contexts.