Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 46, Issue 12, pp 3838–3843 | Cite as

Brief Report: Seeing the Man in the Moon: Do Children with Autism Perceive Pareidolic Faces? A Pilot Study

  • Christian RyanEmail author
  • Martina Stafford
  • Robert James King
Brief Report


Faces are one of the most socially significant visual stimuli encountered in the environment, whereas pareidolias are illusions of faces arising from ambiguous stimuli in the environment. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterised by deficits in response to social stimuli. We found that children with ASD (n = 60) identify significantly fewer pareidolic faces in a sequence of ambiguous stimuli than typically developing peers. The two groups did not differ in the number of objects identified, indicating that the children with ASD had a specific lack of attention to faces. Pareidolia have considerable potential as naturalistic and easy-to-create materials for the investigation of spontaneous attention to social stimuli in children with ASD.


Autism spectrum disorder Face perception Social attention Protofacial stimuli Pareidolia 



We wish to thank all the children and families who took part in the study. The manuscript was prepared based on the thesis submitted by the second author to University College, Cork.

Author Contributions

The study was conceived by MS, in discussion with RK and CR. MS designed the study and collected the data. Data analysis was done by CR and MS. CR coordinated and drafted the manuscript with contributions from both RK and MS. All authors read and approved of the final manuscript. 


This study was carried out without external funding.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

All authors declares that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

10803_2016_2927_MOESM1_ESM.docx (52 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 51 KB)


  1. Akechi, H., Kikuchi, Y., Tojo, Y., Osanai, H., & Hasegawa, T. (2014). Neural and behavioural resposnes to face-likeness of objects in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. Scientific Reports, 4(3874), 1–7.Google Scholar
  2. Akechi, H., Stein, T., Kikuchi, Y., Tojo, Y., Osanai, H., & Hasegawa, T. (2015). Preferential awareness of protofacial stimuli in autism. Cognition, 143, 29–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th edn.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Annaz, D., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Johnson, M. H., & Thomas, M. C. (2009). A cross-syndrome study of the development of holistic face recognition in children with autism, Down syndrome, and Williams syndrome. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 102(4), 456–486.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Chawarska, K., Volkmar, F., & Klin, A. (2010). Limited attentional bias for faces in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67, 178–185.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  6. Chevallier, C., Huguet, P., Happe, F., George, N., & Conty, L. (2012). Salient social cues are prioritized in autism spectrum disorders despite overall decrease in social attention. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(7), 1642–1651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chevallier, C., Kohls, G., Troiani, V., Brodkin, E. S., & Schultz, R. T. (2012). The social motivation theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(4), 231–239.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  8. Dalton, K. M., Nacewicz, B. M., Johnstone, T., Schaefer, H. S., Gernsbacher, M. A., Goldsmith, H. H., Alexander, A. L., & Davidson, R. J. (2005). Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism. Nature Neuroscience, 8(4), 519–526.PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  9. Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., O’Sullivan, M., Chan, A., Diacoyanni-Tarlatzis, I., Heider, K., & Scherer, K. (1987). Universals and cultural differences in the judgments of facial expressions of emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(4), 712–717.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Frank, M. C., Vul, E., & Johnson, S. P. (2009). Development of infants’ attention to faces during the first year. Cognition, 110(2), 160–170.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Goren, C. C., Sarty, M., & Wu, P. Y. (1975). Visual following and pattern discrimination of face-like stimuli by newborn infants. Pediatrics, 56(4), 544–549.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Guillon, Rogé, Q., B,. Afzali, M, H., Baduel, S., Kruck, J., & Hadjikhani, N. (2016). Intact perception but abnormal orientation towards face-like objects in young children with ASD. Scientific Reports, 6(22119), 1–9.Google Scholar
  13. Hadjikhani, N., Kveraga, K., Naik, P., & Ahlfors, S. (2009). Early (N170) activation of face-specific cortex by face-like objects. Neuroreport, 20(4), 403–407.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  14. Hershler, O., & Hochstein, S. (2005). At first sight: A high level pop out effect for faces. Vision Research, 45(13), 1707–1724.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Kikuchi, Y., Senju, A., Tojo, Y., Osanai, H., & Hasegawa, T. (2009). Faces do not capture special attention in children with autism spectrum disorder: A change blindness study. Child Development, 80(5), 1421–1433.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Klin, A., Sparrow, S. S., De Bildt, A., Cicchetti, D. V., Cohen, D. J., & Volkmar, F. R. (1999). A normed study of face recognition in autism and related disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 29(6), 499–508.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Kylliäinen, A., Wallace, S., Coutanche, M. N., Leppänen, J. M., Cusack, J., Bailey, A. J., & Hietanen, J. K. (2012). Affective–motivational brain responses to direct gaze in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53(7), 790–797.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Langton, S. R., Law, A. S., Burton, M. A., & Schweinberger, S. R. (2008). Attention capture by faces. Cognition, 107, 330–342.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Liu, J., Li, J., Feng, L., Li, L., Tian, J., & Lee, K. (2014). Seeing Jesus in toast: neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Cortex: A Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior, 53, 60–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lord, C., Risi, S., Lambrecht, L., Cook, E. J., Leventhal, B. L., DiLavore, P. C., Pickles, A., & Rutter, M. (2000). The autism diagnostic observation schedule—generic: A standard measure of social and communication deficits associated with the spectrum of autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30(3), 205–223.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Lord, C., Rutter, M., & Le Couteur, A. (1994). Autism diagnostic interview-revised: A revised version of a diagnostic interview for caregivers of individuals with possible pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24(5), 659–685.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Macmillan, N. A., & Creelman, C. D. (2005). Detection theory: A user’s guide (2nd edn.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.Google Scholar
  23. Maranhão-Filho, P., & Vincent, M. B. (2009). Neuropareidolia: Diagnostic clues apropos of visual illusions. Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria, 67, 1117–1123.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Maurer, D., Le Grand, R., & Mondloch, C. (2002). The many faces of configural processing. Trends in Cognitive Science, 6(6), 255–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Palermo, R., & Rhodes, G. (2007). Are you always on my mind? A review of how face perception and attention interact. Neuropsychologia, 45, 75–92.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Pelphrey, K. A., Sasson, N. J., Reznick, J. S., Paul, G., Goldman, B. D., & Piven, J. (2002). Visual scanning of faces in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32(4), 249–261.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Pitskel, N. B., Bolling, D. Z., Hudac, C. M., Lantz, S. D., Minshew, N. J., Vander Wyk, B. C., & Pelphrey, K. A. (2011). Brain mechanisms for processing direct and averted gaze in individuals with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(12), 1686–1693.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  28. Riby, D. M., & Hancock, P. B. (2009). Do faces capture the attention of individuals with Williams syndrome or Autism? Evidence from tracking eye movements. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(3), 421–431.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Shah, P., Gaule, A., Bird, G., & Cook, R. (2013). Robust orienting to protofacial stimuli in autism. Current Biology, 23(24), 1087–1088.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Takashashi, K., & Watanabe, K. (2013). Gaze cueing by pareidolia faces. i-Perception, 4, 490–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Tomarken, A. J., & Serlin, R. C. (1986). Comparison of ANOVA alternatives under variance heterogeneity and specific noncentrality structures. Psychological Bulletin, 99(1), 90–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Wing, L., Leekam, S. R., Libby, S. J., Gould, J., & Larcombe, M. (2002). The diagnostic interview for social and communication disorders: Background, inter-rater reliability and clinical use. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 43, 307–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Wolf, J. M., Tanaka, J. W., Klairman, C., Cockburn, J., Herlihy, L., Brown, C., South, M., McPartland, J., Kaiser, M. D., Philips, R., & Schultz, R. T. (2008). Specific impairment of face processing abilities in children with autism spectrum disorder using the Let’s Face It! skills battery. Journal of Autism Research, 1, 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. World Health Organization. (1992). The ICD-10 classification of mental and behavioural disorders: Clinical descriptions and diagnostic guidelines. Geneva: World Health Organization.Google Scholar
  35. Weigelt, S., Koldewyn, K., & Kanwisher, N. (2012). Face identity recognition in autism spectrum disorders: A review of behavioral studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 36(3), 1060–1084.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Psychology Department, North Lee ASD ServiceCOPE FoundationCorkIreland
  2. 2.School of Applied PsychologyUniversity CollegeCorkIreland

Personalised recommendations