Parents often speak about the difficulty of dealing with possible autism characteristics in a young child. When any red flags appear, parents start second guessing themselves. They watch their child like a hawk, dissecting every aspect of behavior. In such circumstances some parents mention that it would be easier if there were distinct autism features that alleviate uncertainty.
Not only that, some parents believe their autistic kids would have an easier time if people could “see” the condition behind their struggle. They mention the stares when their kid has a meltdown; few suspect autism, most assume a lack of discipline.
In contrast there are those who feel the very spectrum nature of autism should be celebrated, as every autistic individual is different. Autistic children present symptoms heterogeneously; they are unique in the characteristics they display. Or in the words of Dr. Stephen Shore: “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”
But are people on the spectrum also unique in the way they look? Does face shape or any other facial feature have the potential to identify autism spectrum disorder? Recent studies do seem to suggest there may be some distinct facial features more commonly found in children with autism.
Researching distinct facial features in autism
A study (Aldridge et al., 2011) investigated differences in facial morphology in boys with autism compared to typically developing boys. The study was conducted from the base of knowledge indicating that brain development occurs in concert with developing facial tissue—each influencing the way the other develops.
The study (Aldridge et al., 2011) acquired stereophotogrammetric images of boys between the ages of 8 and 12. Of these, 65 were on the autism spectrum and 41 were typically developing boys. The study found significant differences in facial morphology in boys with autism when compared to the neurotypical group. The differences in facial morphology may be significant but the facial differences were subtle to the naked eye.
Another interesting finding that emerged from the study (Aldridge et al., 2011) was the presence of subgroups in the group of boys with autism spectrum disorder; these subgroups were defined by distinct facial morphologies which corresponded with particular behavioral traits.
- In one subgroup, with participants presenting with severe autism symptoms (language impairment, seizures, and intellectual disability), facial features like a wide mouth and a short distance between the top of the mouth and the bottom of the eyes were common
- The other subgroup’s facial features were distinct as boys tended to have a broad upper face and short distance between the base of the nose and the border of the upper lip (philtrum). This group were more likely to be diagnosed with asperger’s syndrome (which is no longer a distinct diagnosis), with fewer cognitive and language impairments
These differences are likely to go unnoticed by parents. The results indicate subtle facial differences picked up by the 3dMD cranial System (Aldridge et al., 2011) which was utilized to acquire three-dimensional stereophotogrammetric images for statistical comparison by clinicians.
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More musculine features in autism?
Another study (Tan et al., 2017) examined whether prepubescent autistic boys and girls present with more facial masculinity in comparison to their neurotypical peers. The study was based on the premise that elevated prenatal exposure to testosterone may be associated with autism spectrum disorder and facial masculinity—current evidence regarding the link between autism and prenatal testosterone exposure is mixed and requires more research.
In comparison to age-matched typically developing controls, the study (Tan et al., 2017) found autistic boys and girls had more musculine facial features. According to the authors, investigations of facial structure of individuals on the spectrum may reveal further insights into the biological pathways associated with autism.
Another study (Gilani et al., 2015) supports the androgyny account, in which both girls and boys with high levels of autistic-like traits were found to present more androgynous facial features in comparison to children with low levels of autistic traits. This means girls present with less femine facial features, and boys present with less musculine features.
A beautiful mind
Autism is increasingly being referred to as a differently wired brain, or a neurodiverse mind. Acceptance of neurodiversity means society will benefit from different ways of thinking and unique perspectives.
According to the studies discussed above, individuals on the spectrum not only think differently, they may also have distinct facial features. These differences may help researchers discover more insight into the autistic mind.
Parents hoping that identifiable facial characteristics may translate to gentler treatment of their kids on the spectrum says more about society than about autistic kids. Do we really need to see autism in a child’s face before we give all children the benefit of doubt when they act in distress?
Aldridge, K., George, I. D., Cole, K. K., Austin, J. R., Takahashi, T. N., Duan, Y., & Miles, J. H. (2011). Facial phenotypes in subgroups of prepubertal boys with autism spectrum disorders are correlated with clinical phenotypes. Molecular autism, 2(1), 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/2040-2392-2-15.
Gilani, S. Z., Tan, D. W., Russell-Smith, S. N., Maybery, M. T., Mian, A., Eastwood, P. R., Shafait, F., Goonewardene, M., & Whitehouse, A. J. (2015). Sexually dimorphic facial features vary according to level of autistic-like traits in the general population. Journal of neurodevelopmental disorders, 7(1), 14. https://doi.org/10.1186/s11689-015-9109-6.
Tan, Diana & Gilani, Syed Zulqarnain & Maybery, Murray & Mian, Ajmal & Hunt, Anna & Walters, Mark & Whitehouse, Andrew. (2017). Hypermasculinised facial morphology in boys and girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder and its association with symptomatology. Scientific Reports. 7. 9348. 10.1038/s41598-017-09939-y.