autism facial features

Autism is characterized by different communication, social, and behavioral challenges. However, recent studies suggest that individuals on the spectrum are also unique in the way they look. This article explains the research on facial features in children with autism and its importance for gaining a better understanding of the condition. Providing aba therapy at home can significantly support developmental progress for children with autism.

Distinct Facial Features in Autism

Research on facial features in autism done by Kristina Aldridge and her team at the University of Missouri in 2011 found significant differences in the facial characteristics of children with autism and their neurotypical peers. The study confirmed that children on the autism spectrum are more likely to have dysmorphology, or unusual physical features of the head and skull. 

How was the study done?

Aldridge investigated the ways in which facial morphology in boys with autism differs from that of typically developing boys. The study was done on 64 boys with autism and 41 neurotypical boys between 8 and 12 years old. 

The method used

Earlier analyses of facial morphology in children with autism have mostly relied on simple observation or tools such as calipers to identify specific facial features. On the contrary, Aldridge’s study was done using 3D digital stereophotogrammetry, a camera system that captures a three-dimensional image of the head. Researchers mapped 17 points on the children’s faces, such as the corner of the eye and the divot in the upper lip. 

What the study found

When Aldridge and her team compared the overall face shape in the two groups of children, they noticed several significant differences. The group consisting of boys with autism showed the following facial characteristics:

  • A broader upper face, including wider eyes
  • A shorter middle region of the face, including the cheeks and nose
  • A broader or wider mouth and the area below the nose and above the top lip (philtrum).

Most of the differences found are invisible to the naked eye and are, therefore, likely to go unnoticed by parents.

Another important finding of the same study was that facial morphologies seemed to correspond to different behavioral traits and the severity of the condition. The group of boys with autism was divided into two subgroups: 

  • The first subgroup consisted of children with severe autism symptoms, such as language impairment, seizures, and intellectual disability. Their facial features included a wide mouth and a short distance between the top of the mouth and the bottom of the eyes.
  • The second subgroup consisted of children with fewer language and social impairments who were more likely to be diagnosed with milder forms of autism (such as Asperger’s syndrome). Unlike the first subgroup, these boys tended to have a broad upper face and a short distance between the base of the nose and the border of the upper lip.

Why are these findings important?

Aldridge’s study was based on the assumption that brain development occurs simultaneously with and influences the development of facial tissue. It is not yet fully clear why some children develop autism, and the facial differences that reflect underlying neurodevelopmental processes may help scientists better understand the genetic causes of the condition.


Furthermore, identifying the subgroups with different facial characteristics can potentially lead to a better understanding of variations in autism symptoms. In the long run, scientists hope to be able to further explore the possibility of using 3D facial images as a complementary diagnostic tool in the early identification of autism.


In the section below, we explain how another study found other crucial facial features in children on the autism spectrum.

More Masculine Features in Autism?

In 2017, researchers from the University of Western Australia led by Diana Weiting Tan discovered a link between masculine facial features and autism. The study was based on the assumption that elevated prenatal exposure to testosterone may be associated with facial masculinity typical in children with autism spectrum disorder.

How was the study done?

The objective of the study was to examine whether pre-pubescent boys and girls with autism displayed more masculine features compared to their neurotypical peers. A total of 113  typically developing girls and 102 boys, as well as 20 girls and 54 boys with autism, were involved in the study. Tan and her team analyzed the ways in which facial features, including nose breadth and height, the width of the mouth, and the distance between the outer corners of the eyes, differed in the two groups.


The method used

This study used a computer algorithm designed by researchers at the University of Western Australia to generate a sample of 3D facial images. Three-hundred-sixty-degree images were produced using random infrared light projection on the children’s faces and combining multiple images captured by stereo cameras. This technique allowed the scientists to measure the facial shape with sub-millimeter accuracy.


Gender scores were based on an analysis of 11 facial features, and ranged from very masculine to very feminine. 

What the study found

Increased facial masculinity was observed in both girls and boys with autism spectrum disorder as compared to the control group. The study confirmed that children with autism had more masculine facial features in comparison to their typically developing peers. Further analysis revealed that children with autism who had higher levels of facial masculinity also had greater social communication difficulties.

Why are these findings important?

Because facial features are highly heritable, these types of studies may provide essential information about the biological pathways associated with the condition. Researchers are also working on measurements of the facial morphology of one-year-old children which will be used to determine how early facial masculinity becomes apparent.


Furthermore, the current findings about masculine features in children on the spectrum highlight a possible connection between prenatal testosterone and the development of autism. Analyzing facial masculinity will potentially allow researchers to better understand whether the trait is heritable or reflects children’s testosterone exposure in the womb.


If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.

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