Paper of the Month: How some kids see faces differently

I’m doing the one-paper-per-day challenge. Some papers will be hot off the press, others will be classics. Some will be relevant to what I’m working on at the moment, others will be from other areas. Each month I discuss my favourite paper here.

Vandewouw, M. M., Choi, E., Hammill, C., Arnold, P., Schachar, R., Lerch, J. P., … Taylor, M. J. (2020). Emotional face processing across neurodevelopmental disorders: a dynamic faces study in children with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Translational Psychiatry, 10(1), 375.


Research on psychiatric disorder has undergone a paradigm shift in the last two decades. Traditionally, a lot of effort has been dedicated to describing the features that differentiate disorders. Under the new paradigm, research focuses more on variation in features that cut across diagnostic categories. This can be a powerful approach to identify mechanisms and common targets for treatment, especially when looking at how differences emerge in development. In this paper, the authors investigated face processing in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The ability to process emotional facial expression is thought to be fundamental for social functioning. Further, differences in social processing are central for some theories of autism that assume a core deficit in social processing in ASD. In contrast, social deficits are less implicated in theories of ADHD and OCD. By contrasting the conditions, the authors can test how specific face processing differences are to these conditions.

What I learned from this paper

  • More similarities than differences: The children with ADHD, ASD, and OCD showed differences in how their brain processes dynamic facial expressions compared to typically developing children. There was little difference between the diagnostic groups.
  • Differences in basic visual processing: The brain activation of children with ADHD, ASD, or OCD when processing faces showed differences in the occipital and posterior temporal cortex. The implicated areas are involved in basic visual processing. This may indicate that differences in basic perceptual processing in these disorders.
  • Possible compensation with age: Activation in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) was higher in older children with ASD and OCD compared to typically developing children. The PFC is usually implicated in cognitive control. Extrapolating from this, the higher PFC activation with age may indicate compensation by which older children with ASD or ASD recruit cognitive control to make up for deficits in visual processing.

Top quotes

“The significant overlap we report across disorders supports a growing literature that suggests that the neurobiological susceptibility in [neurodevelopmental disorders]” needs understanding beyond traditional diagnosis-based categories.”

“… the emotional difficulties shared by [neurodevelopmental disorders] may be partly attributed to atypical visual information processing interfering with social-emotional information management”

Related further reading:

Casey, B. J., Oliveri, M. E., and Insel, T. (2014). A neurodevelopmental perspective on the research domain criteria (RDoC) framework. Biological Psychiatry, 76(5), 350 353.

I’m a lecturer in psychology specialised in cognitive neuroscience. My research investigated brain development in young people who struggle in school.

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