Emotional language processing in autism spectrum disorders: a systematic review

Front Hum Neurosci. 2015 Jan 6:8:991. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00991. eCollection 2014.


In his first description of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Kanner emphasized emotional impairments by characterizing children with ASD as indifferent to other people, self-absorbed, emotionally cold, distanced, and retracted. Thereafter, emotional impairments became regarded as part of the social impairments of ASD, and research mostly focused on understanding how individuals with ASD recognize visual expressions of emotions from faces and body postures. However, it still remains unclear how emotions are processed outside of the visual domain. This systematic review aims to fill this gap by focusing on impairments of emotional language processing in ASD. We systematically searched PubMed for papers published between 1990 and 2013 using standardized search terms. Studies show that people with ASD are able to correctly classify emotional language stimuli as emotionally positive or negative. However, processing of emotional language stimuli in ASD is associated with atypical patterns of attention and memory performance, as well as abnormal physiological and neural activity. Particularly, younger children with ASD have difficulties in acquiring and developing emotional concepts, and avoid using these in discourse. These emotional language impairments were not consistently associated with age, IQ, or level of development of language skills. We discuss how emotional language impairments fit with existing cognitive theories of ASD, such as central coherence, executive dysfunction, and weak Theory of Mind. We conclude that emotional impairments in ASD may be broader than just a mere consequence of social impairments, and should receive more attention in future research.

Keywords: affect; asperger syndrome; autism spectrum disorders; emotion; language; social.

Publication types

  • Review