Name That Face: Helping Teens with Autism Interpret Facial Expressions


When you look at someone’s face, you make a quick decision: Is that an angry face? A happy face? While this decision is instinctual for most people, children and teenagers diagnosed with autism struggle to interpret facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and how to successfully relate to the world around them.

Creative Tools for Teens with Asperger’s

At Southeast Journeys, a unique boarding school for teens with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, nonverbal learning disorder and related needs, adolescents with autism learn to interpret facial expressions in creative ways. If you walk into any classroom at the school, you may find the students sitting in front of a computer, looking at a screen and trying to decide, what are those eyes saying? Is that person sad, flirtatious, sarcastic?

The students at Southeast Journeys take the “Mind in the Eyes” quiz and use the “Mind Reading Emotions Library” – tools designed to help children with autism recognize over 400 emotions in a variety of people. The tools were created by Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and an international expert on teaching people to understand facial expressions.

As part of the quiz, students review various pairs of eyes and choose the word that best describes what the person in the picture is thinking or feeling. By learning to discern small gestures, fleeting smiles, arched eyebrows and other signals, students gradually improve their ability to understand and interact with other people.Having a better understanding of different facial expressions may one day help teens with Asperger’s navigate difficult social situations. These children tend to struggle with making friends and behaving in socially appropriate ways. As a result, they can be targeted for bullying, teasing, and social isolation. Because of these risks, learning facial expressions from a live person may not be the best approach–negative social experiences can cause kids with autism to withdraw from social situations altogether.

A Unique Approach to Social Skills Development

These tools are just some of the unique approaches Southeast Journeys uses in its social skills curriculum. Other components include social skills classes and experiential adventure activities that give students a chance to work on communication and social cues in a natural environment. As students successfully take on more responsibilities, they are rewarded through a privilege-based level system encouraging social skills and accountability.

“The research shows that in order for social skills training to be effective, you must use a variety of teaching strategies that appeal to the unique learning styles of teens with [autism],” says Aaron McGinley, Clinical Services Manager at Talisman Programs and Southeast Journeys. “Sometimes we do interactive role plays; at other times we do a quick worksheet. In some units, we may play a clip from a movie and have a class discussion about it afterward.”

The benefit of choosing a program like Southeast Journeys is students have every tool at their disposal to improve their social skills. When developing the social curriculum, the team at Southeast Journeys integrated materials from a variety of proven, evidence-based resources.

In addition, the school for autism provides intensive social skills training so that students make progress quickly and can apply their skills in other settings. Students meet for a social skills group five day a week, whereas most public schools offer little or no specialized social skills training.

More importantly, at Southeast Journeys social skills units are coordinated with the rest of the program so that students have a chance to practice these skills outside of class.

“This approach of specific training coupled with natural-situation coaching offers the best of both worlds,” says McGinley.

Not only do students at Southeast Journeys have the latest research-backed tools available to them, they receive training from a highly qualified staff that provides one-on-one guidance and immediate feedback. This type of social skills training is impossible to find in most public schools and is difficult to match in other therapeutic programs.

Written by: Meghan Vivo


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The team behind Your Little Professor is dedicated to providing factual information for parents and caretakers of adolescents on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. We believe in connecting families to the necessary resources in order to help individuals on the spectrum succeed in day-to-day life.

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