The ease with which people distinguish between different faces that express emotions is based on an integral perception and processing, that is, faces are perceived as something more than the sum of their parts. However, from a social point of view, the use of a mask has changed the way in which we recognize emotions, since when half of our face is covered we must rely on other factors such as the volume and tone of voice, posture, gestures and facial expressions in the upper part of the face (gazing, frowning, etc.).
This represents a challenge for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as they use alternative strategies for examining faces, which are mainly "non-emotional" as those commonly used to process objects. This different way of perceiving faces entails significant difficulties when interpreting emotions, something equivalent to what happens to us with the use of masks.
At the end of 2020, doctors Daniel J. Carragher and Claus-Christian Carbon reported the effect of wearing a mask on the level of facial recognition and emotions, respectively. The first study consisted of evaluating the ability to recognize familiar and unfamiliar faces with and without a mask.
For this, 143 participants were studied, all over 18 years of age, who were shown a series of pairs of photographs where: 1) both faces were uncovered, 2) one had masks and the other did not, 3) both faces they wore masks, and were then asked to say whether the face belonged to the same person or not.
First, the procedure was performed with the faces of strangers and, later, it was repeated with faces of celebrities that were familiar to the participants. The results showed that whenever the mask was present, it was more difficult to recognize the person, even when they were familiar. However, this became more complicated when it was an unknown face, confirming that the use of a mask makes facial recognition difficult.
On the other hand, the second study evaluated the ability of a group made up of 36 people (between 18 and 87 years old) to recognize the facial expressions attributed to each emotion on faces with and without masks. The experimental design consisted of showing a series of photographs of a single person representing each emotion with and without a mask, and participants were asked to identify the emotions under both conditions.
In the case of the photographs without a mask, the error rate was very low. While, in the set of photographs with masks, not only the error rate was considerably higher, but also emotions were confused. For example, disgust was confused with anger. This misinterpretation could cause a person who dislikes something very specific in a given situation and expresses this spontaneously to be interpreted as angry and potentially aggressive. In addition, sadness was confused with normality, which could lead to empathy not being generated towards the person who is sad.
Finally, participants were asked how sure they were about their answers. In 100% of the cases they said that they were less sure when the face had a mask, so the researchers concluded that the use of a mask not only hinders the recognition of emotions, but also, confidence in the evaluation itself.
In addition, it is important to note that people with ASD (especially children) often develop phobias of medical equipment (including masks), which can become a problem. additional problem under the current conditions in which we live.
In early 2021, Mary Halbur and her team reported a method that seeks to help children with ASD become familiar with the use of masks. They promoted the use of words to express emotions and thus make it easier to recognize them.
The method consists of familiarizing the child with the mask in 10-minute daily practices, where they start with the mask one meter away and progress until they can place the mask on the child's face for 3 seconds. Subsequently, the time of use is increased until using the mask does not generate disgust. It is important to mention that the next step cannot be advanced until the child is able to repeat the previous step for three days without complaining. At the beginning of each session, the child is given a choice of a toy and a sweet of his choice, the toy can be used during the duration of the protocol and the sweet can only be eaten at the end of the protocol if he did not show resistance to the treatment. method. On the other hand, it is important that the adult who assists the child during the protocol remains calm and promotes the use of words to express emotions.
The method created by Halbur was applied to a group of 12 children with different degrees of autism, obtaining favorable results in all cases. After two weeks, all the children completed the protocol being able to wear masks for longer than 15 minutes without any problem. In addition, a positive response to the use of words to express emotions was observed, validating the methodology used.
Based on the aforementioned research, we can say that, although the use of masks as a consequence of the pandemic has made it difficult to recognize emotions and faces in general, it has also given us the opportunity to get closer to daily experience of people with ASD. This not only allows us to empathize deeply and sincerely, but also to propose changes, such as normalizing expressing feelings and emotions with words, so that perceiving differently does not imply a difficulty.
*This article arises from the agreement with the Interdisciplinary Center of Neuroscience of the University of Valparaíso.