Computer games help autistic children read faces

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Jim Tanaka has always been interested in experts.

For his Ph.D. dissertation, he studied expert bird watchers and dog show judges, and developed a program to train novices on how to recognize certain species of birds.

Today, as a face researcher at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, he is trying to apply those skills to children with autism.

"Kids with autism show pronounced impairments in face recognition," he said during an interview at the annual meeting of the Vision Sciences Society in Naples, Fla., in the spring. "Some people have argued that might be the source of their social and emotional problems. If we can't interpret somebody's facial expression or recognize who they are, that's going to cause lots of problems in social interactions."

Two years ago, his team and colleagues from the Yale University School of Medicine published findings from a series of tests that measured children's ability to recognize faces and objects.

As it turned out, the children with autism who took the tests showed normal ability at recognizing cars and superior skill at recognizing houses.

But they had significant problems identifying faces when they were shown from different angles or when some of the features were covered.

That led him to develop a computerized program called Lets Face It! to improve face reading in children with autism. A study published this year in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry showed that when 42 children with autism got just 20 hours of training on faces, it created modest improvement in their recognition abilities.

"The effects were not the home run we might have wanted, but the study did provide us with evidence that a computer-based approach could work."

Dr. Tanaka is now collaborating with Marni Bartlett, a computer vision scientist at the University of California at San Diego, on a new version of Let's Face It! that will look and feel more like real-world interactions, using a webcam to detect the expressions children are making.

In one game that is similar to Pac-Man, the children maneuver a character through a maze. If they encounter a computer creature with a happy face, they have to smile broadly enough for the webcam to detect their expression, at which point the creature will disappear. Another version requires making an angry face.

In a second game, called "Face, Face Revolution," a face icon will move to the center of the screen and quickly go from a neutral expression to an emotion that the player has to mimic.

In the final game, players will move their character around the screen and can only approach other creatures that are smiling. If they mimic the smile, they can corral the creatures and build up points.

"Our thinking is that we won't necessarily be able to make the children better at spontaneous expressions, but we can address the more conscious volitional ones," and that may help them both interpret others' expressions and show emotions more appropriately.

One mother whose daughter participated in the first version of Let's Face It! thinks it helped kick-start her ability to recognize faces.

Before doing the program, said Valerie Kowkabany of Highland Mills, N.Y., "if my daughter Hayley were to walk in a room or walk by somebody and they were really in pain, I think she would not have acknowledged it. It just would not have been on her radar."

After doing the face exercises, "I think it brought her up to a new level, and certainly now, when I come home from work after a bad day, she says, 'What's the matter, mom?' and now she's very intuitive."

Let's Face It! -- which can be downloaded for free at -- is not the only face training program under way for autistic children.

At Carnegie Mellon University's Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, research scientist Suzy Scherf is taking a different approach to the issue.

She is using "greebles," computer figures that look a little like faceless Gremlins.

Operating on the concept that young people with autism may have a "social aversion" to faces, her team is using the greebles as a substitute that may tap into autistic children's affection for cartoon characters and certain kinds of objects.

The idea is to send them home with a laptop and ask them to learn the identities of a whole set of greebles, and then test them a year later to see how well they remember them.

With the one person who has finished the training, a brain scan showed that the number of neurons he was using to identify the greebles had grown, but it will be some time before she has overall results.

Dr. Tanaka also has started collaborating with the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh on face training.

The Warhol's education department, run by Tressa Varner and Abigail Franzen-Sheehan, already conducts face-based educational activities for children using the artist's filmed screen tests, some of his silk screen portraits and an old set of criminal suspect identification kits.

The women are now hoping to work with Pitt autism researcher Mark Strauss and special education teachers to develop programs that might help local children with the disorder.

We're really excited," Ms. Varner said. "What we'd like is to see if doing portraiture on all different levels can help a person better recognize faces."

While it's been gratifying to hear scattered praise from parents about how much his program has helped, Dr. Tanaka said his goal is to develop a curriculum that can consistently improve autistic children's face reading skills "from the small screen to the big world."

"You want to develop interventions that will benefit the children in their everyday lives."

Mark Roth: or 412-263-1130.


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