Recounting Basic and Self-Conscious Emotional Experiences in Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorders
The ability to reflect on one’s emotional experiences is central to emotional competence. Past research has shown that high-functioning individuals with ASD can discuss their experiences with basic emotions, but struggle with more complex emotions (Losh & Capps, 2006). This has important bearing on social functioning, as complex emotions, particularly self-conscious emotions, facilitate social relationships by motivating us to adhere to social norms (guilt) as well as personal standards (pride).
Most studies have focused on basic emotion processing in ASD using recognition paradigms (Uljarevic & Hamiliton, 2013). The purpose of this research was to examine children’s verbal recounting of basic (happy, fear and sad) and self-conscious (pride, guilt, embarrassment) emotions that they have experienced. Relations between ASD symptomatology, Theory of Mind (ToM), cognitive skills, and recounting of emotions were also assessed.
Twenty-three children with ASD and 36 neurotypical (NT) children were tested. Table 1 shows significant and non-significant differences between the groups.
Children were asked to provide two different personal instances during which they experienced happiness, fear sadness, pride, guilt, and embarrassed emotions. Recounting was interspersed between other tasks not related to this study. Additional measures included ToM (Strange Stories and Faux Pas Detection), Child Autism Rating Scale-2, Social Responsiveness Scale-2, and the Wechsler Abbreviated ScaIe of Intelliegence-2. Children’s recounts were coded using a system to gauge accuracy in responses, whether they included others in their recounts, and features related to specific emotions (e.g., presence of an audience with embarrassment).
The most compelling findings centered on the number of recounts provided: children with ASD gave significantly fewer recounts of each emotion than NT children, t(56) = 2.49 – 3.80, p < .02 (Table 2). Additionally, children with ASD gave significantly more recounts of happy, sad and pride experiences than fear, guilt or embarrassed experiences. Language ability, r(21)< .17, matrix reasoning, r(21)< .41, and FSIQ, r(21)< .37, were not related to the number of recounts children with ASD provided. These results correspond to statements made by children with ASD, including “I don’t think I have ever felt guilty.” or “I can’t think of when I felt scared.”
However, when providing a recount, children with ASD were strikingly similar to NT children (e.g., no significant differences were found in the accuracy of their recounts). Nevertheless, a few differences were found, to the extent that children with ASD made fewer connections to others in their recounts. ToM was positively related to number of emotion recounts in the ASD, but not in the NT group.
The results showed that children with ASD struggled to recount personally experienced episodes of fear, guilt and embarrassment. These findings are consistent with research showing deficits in the understanding of fear (Tell et al., 2014), and research showing that individuals with ASD may be less prone to feelings of guilt (Davidson et al., 2015). These results were not due to differences in language or other intellectual abilities, although ToM skills were related to a number of findings in children with ASD, but not NT children.