Shared mechanism for emotion processing in adolescents with and without autism

Sci Rep. 2017 Feb 20:7:42696. doi: 10.1038/srep42696.


Although, the quest to understand emotional processing in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has led to an impressive number of studies, the picture that emerges from this research remains inconsistent. Some studies find that Typically Developing (TD) individuals outperform those with ASD in emotion recognition tasks, others find no such difference. In this paper, we move beyond focusing on potential group differences in behaviour to answer what we believe is a more pressing question: do individuals with ASD use the same mechanisms to process emotional cues? To this end, we rely on model-based analyses of participants' accuracy during an emotion categorisation task in which displays of anger and fear are paired with direct vs. averted gaze. Behavioural data of 20 ASD and 20 TD adolescents revealed that the ASD group displayed lower overall performance. Yet, gaze direction had a similar impact on emotion categorisation in both groups, i.e. improved accuracy for salient combinations (anger-direct, fear-averted). Critically, computational modelling of participants' behaviour reveals that the same mechanism, i.e. increased perceptual sensitivity, underlies the contextual impact of gaze in both groups. We discuss the specific experimental conditions that may favour emotion processing and the automatic integration of contextual information in ASD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anger
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology*
  • Child
  • Cues
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time
  • Recognition, Psychology