Background: The capacity to evaluate beauty plays a crucial role in social behaviour and social relationships. It is known that some characteristics of beauty are important social cues that can induce stereotypes or promote different behavioural expectations. Another crucial capacity for success in social interactions is empathy, i.e. the ability to understand and share others' mental and emotional states. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have an impairment of empathic ability. We showed in a previous study that empathy and aesthetic perception abilities closely related. Indeed, beauty can affect different aspects of empathic behaviour, and empathy can mediate the aesthetic perception in typically developing (TD) individuals. Thus, this study evaluates the ability of aesthetic perception in ASD individuals compared to TD individuals, using the Golden Beauty behavioural task adapted for eye-tracking in order to acquire both explicit and implicit evidences. In both groups, the relationship between empathic and aesthetic perception abilities was also evaluated.
Methods: Ten ASD individuals (age ± SD:20.7 ± 4.64) and ten TD individuals (age ± SD:20.17 ± 0.98) participated in the study. Participants underwent empathy tasks and then the Golden Beauty task. To assess differences in the participants' performance, we carried out a repeated measures general linear model.
Results: At the explicit level, our behavioural results show an impairment in aesthetic perception ability in ASD individuals. This inability could have relevance for their ability to experience pleasure during social interactions. However, at the implicit level (eye-tracking results), ASD individuals conserved a good ability to feel aesthetic pleasure during the Golden Beauty task, thus indicating a discrepancy between the explicit and implicit evaluation of the beauty task. Finally, beauty perception appears to be linked to empathy when neither of these capacities is compromised, as demonstrated in the TD group. In contrast, this link is missed in ASD individuals.
Conclusion: Overall, our results clearly show that individuals with autism are not completely blind to aesthetic pleasure: in fact, they retain an implicit ability to experience beauty. These findings could pave the way for the development of new protocols to rehabilitate ASD social functioning, exploiting their conserved implicit aesthetic perception.
Keywords: Aesthetic perception; Autism spectrum disorder; Empathy; Eye-tracking; Social cognition.