Understanding of emotional experience in autism: insights from the personal accounts of high-functioning children with autism

Dev Psychol. 2006 Sep;42(5):809-18. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.42.5.809.


In this study, the authors investigate emotional understanding in autism through a discourse analytic framework to provide a window into children's strategies for interpreting emotional versus nonemotional encounters and consider the implications for the mechanisms underlying emotional understanding in typical development. Accounts were analyzed for thematic content and discourse structure. Whereas high-functioning children with autism were able to discuss contextually appropriate accounts of simple emotions, their strategies for interpreting all types of emotional (but not nonemotional) experiences differed from those used by typically developing children. High-functioning children with autism were less inclined to organize their emotional accounts in personalized causal-explanatory frameworks and displayed a tendency to describe visually salient elements of experiences seldom observed among comparison children. Findings suggest that children with autism possess less coherent representations of emotional experiences and use alternative strategies for interpreting emotionally evocative encounters. Discussion focuses on the significance of these findings for informing the nature of emotional dysfunction in autism as well as implications for theories of emotional understanding in typical development.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Asperger Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Asperger Syndrome / psychology*
  • Autistic Disorder / diagnosis
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology*
  • Child
  • Communication
  • Concept Formation
  • Emotions*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intelligence
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Interview, Psychological
  • Intuition
  • Male
  • Mental Recall
  • Reference Values
  • Self Concept*
  • Sick Role*
  • Stereotyped Behavior
  • Verbal Behavior