A quantitative meta-analysis of face recognition deficits in autism: 40 years of research.

Jason W. Griffin, Russell Bauer, K. Suzanne Scherf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


The ability to recognize an individual face is essential to human social interaction. Even subtle errors in this process can have huge implications for the way we relate to social partners. Because autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by deficits in social interaction, researchers have theorized about the potential role of atypical face identity processing to the symptom profile of ASD for more than 40 years. We conducted an empirical meta-analysis of this large literature to determine whether and to what extent face identity processing is atypical in ASD compared to typically developing (TD) individuals. We also tested the hypotheses that the deficit is selective to face identity recognition, not perception, and that methodological variation across studies moderates the magnitude of the estimated deficit. We identified 112 studies (5,390 participants) that generated 172 effect sizes from both recognition (k = 119) and discrimination (k = 53) paradigms. We used state-of-the-art approaches for assessing the validity and robustness of the analyses. We found comparable and large deficits in ASD for both face identity recognition (Hedge’s g = −0.86) and discrimination (Hedge’s g = −0.82). This means that the score of an average ASD individual is nearly 1 SD below the average TD individual on tasks assessing both aspects of face identity processing. These deficits generalize across age groups, sex, IQ scores, and task paradigms. These findings suggest that deficits in face identity processing may represent a core deficit in ASD. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved) Public Significance Statement—We present a data-driven analysis of the face recognition research in autism from the last 40 years. Our findings indicate that people with ASD struggle to process information about the identity of a face. This deficit is large, such that on average 80.5% of ASD individuals perform worse than typical individuals on tests of face identity processing. This impairment likely contributes to ASD-specific difficulties with social interaction, which require the ability to identify social partners as unique individuals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)268-292
Number of pages25
JournalPsychological Bulletin
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology


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