Afriend of mine told me the other day about the time she was teaching special needs children in Miyazaki Prefecture. One boy had autism, and threw terrible tantrums the first few times my friend came to teach.

She’s a foreigner, and though her black hair, at least, was familiar to the Japanese children, she had scary bright blue eyes. Many children with autism get upset at changes to their routine, and my friend was not only an unfamiliar person in the classroom, she was practically an alien.

She would smile in encouragement to the boy, but she failed to get a response. It was no fault of hers, however. Special needs children are classified as special needs for a good reason, and autistic children are particularly challenging.

Last week in Seattle, Wash., researchers showed why it’s so difficult to communicate with autistic children. With as many as 1 in 150 children in the United States affected by some form of autism spectrum disorder, and presumably similar numbers in other countries, it’s important to know as much as possible.

The clue is in the name. “Autism” means “self-ism.” The disorder comes in varying degrees of severity, but can be summarized as follows. People with the disorder know themselves, they have a sense of self, but have problems understanding that other people do too. In other words, they are thought to have a poor “theory of mind” — the ability to understand what other people are thinking. This is why they tend not to be very social. They can’t empathize, they can’t put themselves into others’ shoes.

Last week, at the International Meeting for Autism Research, evidence was presented showing that autistic children have trouble reading facial expressions. Is someone angry or happy? Most people can understand such emotions without even thinking, but in autistic people the brain areas that interpret expressions simply don’t work. This much was already known, but the new research took things further.

A team led by Mari Davies, from the University of California, Los Angeles, compared brain activity between 16 “normal” children and 16 children with autism. The autistic children, aged 8 to 17, did not have the most severe form of the disorder; they had what is known as “high functioning” autism. All the children were shown faces with different expressions — angry, terrified, delighted. And some faces were neutral, showing no emotion. In half of the photographs, the eyes of the subject were looking away; in the other half the eyes stared straight at the camera. As they looked at the photos, the children’s brains were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging.

In youngsters without the disorder, a brain region called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex showed greater activity when the photos were of people staring at the camera, showing a direct gaze. You’ve guessed it: In children with autism, there was no difference in brain activity whether the photos showed a direct gaze or had the eyes averted.

“This part of the brain helps us discern the meaning and significance of what another person is thinking,” Davies said. The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is important in processing emotions. “When responding to someone looking straight at you, as compared to someone who’s looking away, the brain discerns a difference. When the other person looks away, the brain quiets down.”

With angry expressions, for example, the brain quietens down, because when the gaze is averted, it is no longer seen as a direct threat. “Gaze has a huge impact on our brains because it conveys part of the meaning of that expression to the individual. It cues the individual to what is significant,” Davies said.

It explains why autistic children, even when gazing directly into someone’s eyes, have trouble recognizing emotions. My teacher friend, smiling at the autistic child in her class, didn’t get a positive response because the child just saw someone unfamiliar. He saw the encouraging smile, but was unable to process it.

Davies says the inability may be why children with autism have varying degrees of impairment in communication skills and social interactions. It might also explain why they show restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

“They don’t pick up what’s going on; they miss the nuances, the body language and facial expressions, and sometimes miss the big picture and instead focus on minor, less socially relevant details,” Davies said. “That, in turn, affects interpersonal bonds.”

What about the young boy back in Miyazaki? He eventually stopped throwing tantrums when he became accustomed to the new teacher. He only very slowly progressed in his English lessons, having trouble matching images with words on flash cards. But there was something he excelled at: drawing.

The boy produced high quality, detailed manga-style cartoon drawings. He could become totally absorbed in these drawings, which is quite unusual for an autistic child. Many such children are unusually skilled at drawing, because they have an incredible eye for detail. But usually the drawings are of buildings or bridges; they are not so often of people.

The boy drew well, copying his figures from comic books and DVDs. He copied the faces too, and made his characters wide-eyed with excitement or grinning with pleasure. But he didn’t understand what the expressions meant.

Can he learn? No, his brain is built that way and can’t be rewired. But help is at hand. People with autism — some of whom rightly do not consider their condition to be a handicap — can be instructed in emotions. Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab are developing computer software that can interpret emotions on faces and “tell” the user what is an appropriate response. It will make social interaction easier for autistic people. For people with an autistic member of the family, as well as for school teachers, that’s a reason to be cheerful.

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