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Autistic children have distinct facial features, study suggests

Courtesy of the University of Missouri

Images like this helped researchers determine differences in the faces of children with autism, when compared to those without the developmental disorder.

We may be a step closer in understanding what causes autism, say University of Missouri researchers after finding differences between the facial characteristics of children who have autism and those who don’t.

Kristina Aldridge, lead author and assistant professor of anatomy at the University of Missouri, began looking at facial characteristics of autistic children after another researcher, Judith Miles, professor emerita in the School of Medicine and the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, mentioned, “There is just something about their faces. They are beautiful, but there is just something about them.”

“Children with other disorders such as Down syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome have very distinct facial features. Autism is much less striking,” she says. “You can’t pick them out in a crowd of kids, but you can pick them out mathematically.”

When researchers took three-dimensional images of the children, they discovered autistic children have a broader upper face with wider eyes, a shorter middle region of the face including the cheeks and nose and a broader or wider mouth and philtrum -- the area below the nose and above the top lip.

Aldridge analyzed 64 boys with autism and 41 typically developing boys ages 8 to 12 using the 3-D images of each boys’ head. She also mapped out 17 points on the face, such as the corner of the eye and the divot in the upper lip. When the overall geometry of the face was calculated and the two groups were compared, she noticed statistical differences in autistic children’s faces.

Researchers also noticed even more differences in a smaller group of autistic children.

“They showed differences in clinical and behavioral traits as well,” she says. “That would tell us about multiple causes of autism.”

Aldridge says the images provide a clue to what happens in the embryo during the middle of the first trimester of pregnancy when the face begins to develop. It may help researchers understand if something environmentally or genetically is happening in the uterus during pregnancy that causes autism.

“This is clear support that the cause of autism is likely happening before birth,” Aldridge says. “This allows us to start looking at those hypotheses more directly.

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