Using Computerized Games to Teach Face Recognition Skills to Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: the Let’s Face It! Program
Tanaka, J.W., Wolf, J.M., Klaiman, C., Koenig, K., Cockburn, J., Herlihy, L., Brown, C., Stahl, S., Kaiser, M.D., & Schultz, R.T. (2010). Using computerized games to teach face recognition skills to children with autism spectrum disorder: the Let’s Face It! program. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51 (8), 944-952.
Reviewed by Jaime Mulcahy, Rutgers University
Why study this topic?
Prior research indicates that children with autism spectrum disorders have selective impairments in attending to and recognizing faces as compared to typically developing peers. Some research has suggested that these impairments may be at the root of the social dysfunction associated with ASD. Despite this finding, little research has been published to show whether facial recognition in individuals with autism can be improved through direct training.
What did the researchers do?
The researchers in this study evaluated the effectiveness of the Let’s Face It! (LFI!) computer program in enhancing the facial recognition skills of children with autism. The LFI! program consists of seven interactive computer games that address the following face processing deficits associated with autism: inattention to the eyes, impaired recognition of identity, and failure to perceive faces holistically. The games employed engaging graphics and music as well as high-score tables to increase the children’s motivation to use the program.
Participants in this study included 79 children, adolescents, and young adults with autism spectrum disorders. Before beginning the study, participants’ facial recognition skills were assessed using the LFI! Skills Battery, a computer-based battery that assesses perception of facial identity across various tasks. Participants were then randomly assigned to either an active treatment group or a waitlist control group (with randomization stratified by mental age and diagnosis). Individuals in the active control group received the LFI! computer game to take home and were instructed to play the games for a minimum of 100 minutes per week. Play within that time was self-paced and not directly monitored by the parents or caregivers. However, families of the participants were provided with a set of plastic token reinforcers to use to increase motivation to comply with the intervention. Compliance was monitored by the researchers through weekly log files generated by the LFI! software. Participants continued with the program until total intervention time reached 20 hours (over a two- to four-month period). Individuals assigned to the waitlist control group underwent treatment as usual for a comparable period of time. Upon completion of the intervention period, the LFI! skills battery was re-administered to both the treatment and control groups.
What did the researchers find?
Compared to the waitlist control group, participants in the active treatment group showed significant improvement in analytic and holistic face processing skills. Specifically, recognition of eye and face features was enhanced, with the greatest improvements shown in analytic recognition when the face parts were tested in isolation. However, participants in the active treatment group did not show significant gains relative to the control group in the following areas: detecting featural and configural face changes, identifying faces across changes in expression and orientation, and recognizing faces over a short retention.
What were the strengths and limitations of the study? What do the results mean?
The results indicate that improvements in facial recognition abilities of children with autism can be achieved through computer-based intervention. This is the first time that such results have been shown through a large-scale clinical trial. The use of a computer-based intervention has the benefits of being inexpensive, easy to implement in home or school settings, and not requiring direct supervision of the participants. The fact that participants in this study did not improve in certain areas of facial recognition, some of which are important in social settings, suggests that some improvements may need to be made to the Let’s Face It! program, or that a longer length of treatment may be necessary for improved results. However, this study provides a first step toward developing a more comprehensive program to improve the facial recognition and processing skills of individuals with autism.