University of Edinburgh

Lipreading Issues

Presented in December 2005

Factors which help or hinder Lipreading

Early Development of Eye Gaze

Babies begin attending to eyes from a very early age. This early awareness of and response to eyes provides a very important foundation for many aspects of development:

  • eye contact between parent and child is important in developing the emotional bond between them... we know that where this contact is absent or reduced the establishment of this bonding is often impaired;
  • the establishment of the parent-child bond in itself provides the crucial foundation for a child's social and emotional development.

While babies look at faces from birth, they don't sustain mutual eye contact until about two or three weeks old.

Delay in beginning to make mutual eye contact can sometimes be indicative of social and/or intellectual delay. In Keller and Zach's study they found that babies who did not make mutual eye contact with their caregivers in their first month of life demonstrated different patterns of subsequent development compared to those who did eg; early 'non-gazers' generally showed developmental delay and had more behaviour problems at age six years than those who did engage in early mutual gaze (Keller and Zach 1993). The implication is that the non-gazing reflected an underlying problem that became more apparent later on. Dysfunctional gazing behaviour may also have got these infants off to the wrong start with their caregivers, resulting in less than optimal patterns of interactions and potential learning experiences.

Mutual gaze is experienced as very rewarding by parents and carers and this special feeling that it evokes plays an important part in early parent-infant bonding. Interestingly, the same emotive importance is not given to early mutual gaze in all cultures (will come back to this later).

The emergence of joint attention (looking where someone else is looking) is considered by many psychologists, to be an important step in the child's mental development. Fairly quickly, babies become good at following other people's direction of gaze.

What does this mean for babies born with a visual impairment? Are they disadvantaged in learning language? In certain ways they are. While these children have the potential to end up equally skilled in language as their sighted peers, various adaptive strategies are necessary to compensate for the lost shared visual context (Anderson, Dunlea and Kekelis 1984). So, while it might seem to be a significant problem initially, it is something which can be overcome.

Autistic infants and children do not typically engage in joint attention. Furthermore, there is evidence that autistic children do not use social gaze declaratively, that is, to tell someone something.

The act of gazing, whether we intend it or not, sends information to other people giving them valuable information about our thoughts and wishes. Autistic children generally don't have this understanding that eyes provide useful clues as to people's desires, intentions and thoughts (Baron-Cohen et a/1995).

It used to be thought that autistic children avoided eye contact with other people, however, recent studies suggest that this is not the case. It appears that autistic children make normal amounts of eye contact with other people but not at the usual points within interactions (Volkmar and Mayes 1991). It is their use of eye contact that deviates from the norm rather than the absolute amount of social gaze that they engage in (Baron-Cohen 1988).

Cultural Issues

Eye contact, in particular between female children and M/F adults, is not encouraged in some cultural groups:

  • certain African cultures, especially east African
  • Arabic regions
  • Chinese societies

Usually just female children...boys can get away with murder!

Margaret Tait Analysis

Looks at early communication exchange, focusing particularly on turn taking, autonomy (initiating communication), eye contact/visual regard and auditory awareness.

NOTE: A consistent pattern of deliberate eye gaze aversion has not been identified in children below six years of age!

Eye Gaze - Some developmental milestones

1. From birth, babies track moving objects and look about their environment. They are quite short sighted, so don't see things at a distance with any clarity.

2. When newborns look at your face, they mostly look around the perimeter eg; at your hairline.

3. From about two and a half weeks, infants begin to make mutual eye contact with other people.

4. Some research suggests that babies from four months might track head movements, but certainly from 12 months, babies will track whole head movements to the left or right.

5. At around 10 months, babies tend to fail the 'A-not-B' problem. The baby is shown a toy hidden under one of two cloths (cloth A) in full view. He/she is allowed to search for the toy and typically finds it. However, when the toy is then hidden under the second, adjacent cloth (cloth B), again in full view, the baby typically continues to search under the cloth where he/she previously found the toy.

6. Around 12 months babies begin to master this problem.

7. By 18 months, toddlers will track your gaze over their shoulder.

8. Between the ages of three and four, children acquire an elementary theory of mind. At this time, they also begin to understand that looking away can be a sign of thinking.

9. By the time children are at school, they will be fairly adept at averting their gaze when they need to think about something.

10. By six years, children begin to understand some of the rules about gazing behaviours - for example, that it's rude to stare, or that staring can mean hostility - and that mutual gaze can be a sign of friendship and liking. A consistent pattern of deliberate eye gaze aversion is not evident in children below the age of six.

Early development of facial expression

Understanding facial expression

Learning to understand faces is an extremely important skill. If we take away the contextual and movement cues that are available in face-to-face conversation, we find that even adults can struggle to understand facial expressions. People are surprisingly poor at judging facial expressions from still photographs. This has definite implications for the materials we use with children, such as photographs or even line drawings to represent facial expression.

Things can get even worse when judging the faces of people from other cultures. In the same way that we find it easier to identify specific people from our own ethnic group, we also find it easier to read their facial expressions.

As we shall see later, we are born with the necessary mechanisms to produce spontaneous expressions therefore we might expect that we have analogous in-built abilities to decode facial expressions.

From a very early age, c three months, infants show a preference for faces looking at them rather than away from them (Caron et al. 1992). Soon (between three and five months of age) they develop the ability to discriminate firstly happy faces, then surprise, fear and sadness (Ekman 1982).

Experiences to which babies are exposed influence the speed at which they come to understand the distinction between different expressions. Babies whose mothers are depressed, learn to discriminate sad faces faster than babies of mothers who are not depressed (Field et al. 1998). This also helps to explain why happiness is the earliest expression that is discriminated as babies generally see a lot of smiling.

From as early as twelve months, babies are able to associate facial expressions of either disgust or pleasure with the object at which you are looking. So that, if you look disgusted and are looking at an object, a child of twelve months will be more likely to show a negative reaction to that object at a later time (Baldwin and Moses 1996).

By two years of age, children recognise six innate expressions of emotion (Ekman 1982). This is different from explicitly understanding facial expressions it's not until about five years of age that children have a reasonably good understanding of the main facial stereotypes (Bradshaw and Mackenzie 1971). However, because children tend to focus more on the eyes rather than on other features, they can misinterpret expressions.
So, although babies learn very quickly to use and recognise the main expressions of emotions, a deeper understanding of emotional expressions continues to develop throughout the pre-school years and cannot be taken for granted in very young children. It takes until around five years of age for children to acquire a reasonable understanding of the relationship between features of expressions (such as a smiling mouth or sad eyes) and the underlying emotion.

Children exhibiting problems understanding facial expression can be taught to be better at reading faces through practice.

Many children with Autism and Asperger's syndrome have particular problems with both producing and understanding emotional facial expressions (Attwood 1998).

Walden and Field (1990) found that children's abilities to understand other people's facial expressions predicted their social competence.

Use of facial expression

Babies are born with the innate potential to produce a whole range of facial movements and expressions. A considerable amount of this range unfolds over the first few months of life and by six months of age they are on their way to proper imitations of facial expressions.

Children who are born blind produce similar expressions even though they have never seen them. Blind children cannot have learned these facial configurations by observing and imitating other people, therefore the six main expressions must, at least in part, be inborn.

As young children's social awareness increases, so too does their ability to pose expressions in deliberate attempts to influence others.

Throughout the primary school years, children learn the display rules of their culture and become increasingly adept at controlling their facial movements.

Some children are unable to use facial expressions properly and this can result in a number of problems. Typically, children who show fewer expressions of positive emotions are more likely to be rejected by their peers and judged to be less socially competent by their teachers (Walden and Field 1990).

Like so many other problems, it is only when some feature of communication is disordered that we become aware of the extent of its significance.

Facial Expression - some developmental milestones

1. From birth, babies show a number of inborn reflexive facial expressions. 'These include 'startle' (in response to, eg; loud noise), crying and disgust (in response to 'bad' tastes).

2. Newborn babies will smile reflexively during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Newborns never smile when fully awake.

3. Sometime during the second month, babies begin 'true smiling'; in other words, they smile when they find something pleasurable, eg; seeing your face.

4. Babies begin showing angry faces around four months and fear faces around six months.

5. Facial expression showing surprise tends to come around seven or eight months of age but is generally not accompanied by raised eyebrows.
During the second half of their first year, babies become increasingly adept at using facial expressions and other expressions of emotion to 'get what they want'. An infant may cry to get your attention rather than because they are actually in distress.

6. By ten months, babies begin to understand adult facial expressions directed towards an object as a source of information about the object - if the adult smiles at one object and shows disgust towards another, the baby is likely to act more favourably to the first.

7. From about twelve months, children begin to fine-tune their emotional expression and learn to display rules from their culture, but it is not until they are school age that they become good at covering up their true feelings. Girls tend to master this faster than boys.

8. By two years of age, children have some notion as to recognising the main expressions of emotion. However, it is not until the age of five that they become really proficient at this and, even then, have difficulty with surprised and angry faces.

9. During the pre-school years, children are more likely to focus on only one feature of an expression, such as smiling mouth for happy. This contrasts with older children and adults who look more at a combination of features. When we judge whether someone is really happy, we tend to look, not only at what the mouth is doing, but also at what the eyes are doing. In fact, adults can judge whether someone is smiling or not even if they can only see their eyes.

10. Five-year-olds have a deeper understanding of mixed emotional expressions such as 'surprised and happy' than four-year-olds.

11. The ability to use internal features of faces, such as the configuration of eyes, mouth and nose, to recognise people does not happen until fairly late in childhood. Some research suggests around the age of 10 to 11 years, while other research states 14 to 15 years. So up until these ages, children typically rely on external features such as hairstyle to make identity judgements.

12. Children's abilities to recognise facial expressions, to lip-read and to judge eye direction generally reach adult levels by around the age of eleven. Identification is the exception to this.


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