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Recovery Act Grant Aims to Teach Kids with Autism How to Better Express Themselves

Computer-based Training in Creating and Responding to Facial Expressions May Improve Social Interactions

Science Update

woman and boy using a laptop

Most children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) seem to have trouble engaging in everyday social interactions. They may seem to have no reaction to other people or may respond atypically when others show anger or affection. Their own facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language may not match what they are saying, making it difficult for others to respond appropriately. Such barriers to communication can isolate children with ASD from their peers.

To help overcome these barriers, NIH awarded a Challenge grant on behalf of NIMH to support the development of a new training program that incorporates two existing computer programs. One program, called Let's Face It!, helps children with ASD recognize facial expressions of others and understand the corresponding emotions. The other program, called the Computer Expression Recognition Toolbox, detects a user's facial expression in real-time, based on 37 different facial expression dimensions (for example, widening one's eyes, raising the inner or outer corners of one's eyebrows, wrinkling one's nose, etc.) and their intensity.

In the new study, Marian Bartlett, Ph.D., of the University of California San Diego, and colleagues will use the two programs as a basis for developing and testing a new computer-assisted program to train children with ASD how to respond to facial expressions of others and how to produce facial expressions conveying particular emotions to others. The researchers will also characterize facial expression production in children who do not have ASD, which can provide important information for research on the normal development of motor skills for social communication.

The NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research program is a new initiative funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). This program supports research on 15 broad Challenge Areas that address specific scientific and health research challenges in biomedical and behavioral research that will benefit from an influx of significant two-year funds to quickly advance the area.

Within these Challenge Areas, NIMH identified 35 topics of particular funding interest that advance the Institute's mission and the objectives outlined in the NIMH Strategic Plan, the Trans-NIH Plan for HIV-Related Research, and the National Advisory Mental Health Council report on research training. These topics can be found at NIMH's Challenge Grant web page.