Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by atypical behaviors in social environments and in reaction to changing events. While this dyad of symptoms is at the core of the pathology along with atypical sensory behaviors, most studies have investigated only one dimension. A focus on the sameness dimension has shown that intolerance to change is related to an atypical pre-attentional detection of irregularity. In the present study, we addressed the same process in response to emotional change in order to evaluate the interplay between alterations of change detection and socio-emotional processing in children and adults with autism.
Methods: Brain responses to neutral and emotional prosodic deviancies (mismatch negativity (MMN) and P3a, reflecting change detection and orientation of attention toward change, respectively) were recorded in children and adults with autism and in controls. Comparison of neutral and emotional conditions allowed distinguishing between general deviancy and emotional deviancy effects. Moreover, brain responses to the same neutral and emotional stimuli were recorded when they were not deviants to evaluate the sensory processing of these vocal stimuli.
Results: In controls, change detection was modulated by prosody: in children, this was characterized by a lateralization of emotional MMN to the right hemisphere, and in adults, by an earlier MMN for emotional deviancy than for neutral deviancy. In ASD, an overall atypical change detection was observed with an earlier MMN and a larger P3a compared to controls suggesting an unusual pre-attentional orientation toward any changes in the auditory environment. Moreover, in children with autism, deviancy detection depicted reduced MMN amplitude. In addition in children with autism, contrary to adults with autism, no modulation of the MMN by prosody was present and sensory processing of both neutral and emotional vocal stimuli appeared atypical.
Conclusions: Overall, change detection remains altered in people with autism. However, differences between children and adults with ASD evidence a trend toward normalization of vocal processing and of the automatic detection of emotion deviancy with age.
Keywords: Adults; Autism spectrum disorder; Change detection; Children; EEG; Emotion; Mismatch negativity (MMN); Prosody.