A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Fall, 2022 | Number 4, Volume 36

Individuals with ASD excel at reading emotions in the eyes in cartoon drawings

Adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) appear to be better at reading emotions in cartoons than neurotypical people are, according to a recent study. 

Liam Cross and colleagues asked 98 individuals with ASD and 98 age-matched controls to view 36 photographs or cartoon drawings of eyes and to select, from four possible options, which emotion the eyes portrayed. The researchers found that individuals with ASD did as well as neurotypical participants when viewing the photos, and did better when looking at the cartoons. While neurotypical participants were better at identifying emotions in photos than in identifying emotions in cartoons, the performance of participants with ASD did not differ significantly between the two tasks. 

Study coauthor Gray Atherton comments, “The fact neurotypicals did worse than autistic people on cartoon eyes raises important questions. Research suggests that this could be an area of social-cognitive strength in autistic people who seem better [than neurotypical people] at identifying with anthropomorphic and non-human agents like animals, robots, dolls, or cartoons.” He and his colleagues say their findings support the concept of socio-cognitive differences rather than deficits in autistic people. 

In addition, Cross says, the findings suggest new avenues for helping individuals with ASD respond to real faces. “One idea we are exploring,” he says, “is using augmented reality to develop filters that can apply anthropomorphic faces over the top of real-life faces. Over time, the augmented reality can be stripped away, allowing the user to apply the same techniques to human faces.”


“Autistic people outperform neurotypicals in a cartoon version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” Liam Cross, Andrea Piovesan, and Gray Atherton, Autism Research, August 2022 (free online). Address: Gray Atherton, Department of Psychology, Edge Hill University, Liverpool L39 4QP, UK, [email protected]


“New research shows that autistic people are better at reading emotions in cartoons,” news release, Edge Hill University, August 4, 2022