Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) present difficulties in integrating mental state information in complex moral tasks. Yet, ASD research has not examined whether this process is influenced by emotions, let alone while capturing its neural bases. We investigated how language-induced emotions modulate intent-based moral judgment in ASD. In a fMRI task, 30 adults with ASD and 27 neurotypical controls read vignettes whose protagonists commit harm either accidentally or intentionally, and then decided how much punishment the protagonist deserved. Emotional content was manipulated across scenarios through the use of graphic language (designed to trigger arousing negative responses) vs. plain (just-the-facts, emotionless) language. Off-line functional connectivity correlates of task performance were also analyzed. In ASD, emotional (graphic) descriptions amplified punishment ratings of accidental harms, associated with increased activity in fronto-temporo-limbic, precentral, and postcentral/supramarginal regions (critical for emotional and empathic processes), and reduced connectivity among the orbitofrontal cortex and the angular gyrus (involved in mentalizing). Language manipulation did not influence intentional harm processing in ASD. In conclusion, in arousing and ambiguous social situations that lack intentionality clues (i.e. graphic accidental harm scenarios), individuals with ASD would misuse their emotional responses as the main source of information to guide their moral decisions. Conversely, in face of explicit harmful intentions, they would be able to compensate their socioemotional alterations and assign punishment through non-emotional pathways. Despite limitations, such as the small sample size and low ecological validity of the task, results of the present study proved reliable and have relevant theoretical and translational implications.
© 2023. The Author(s).