Experiential, Behavioral, and Physiological Correlates of Mixed Emotions in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Objectives: The goal of this study was to examine experiential, behavioral, and physiological correlates of positive, negative, and mixed emotions in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) compared to typically developing (TD) individuals. Social cognitive processing was required to process the film clips, since they required either the ability to understand humor (positive film clips), to understand other people’s pain (negative film clips), or both simultaneously (mixed film clips).
Methods: Twenty-seven participants with ASD (4 female; FSIQ: M=101.74, SD=18.34) and 32 TD participants (9 female; FSIQ: M=112.75, SD=11.43) between 8 and 20 years (M=12.85, SD=2.96) were asked to rate amusement and repulsion on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 5 (very strongly) after each of 18 film clips eliciting either pure positive (i.e., amusement in the face of humorous lapses), pure negative (i.e., repulsion in the face of painful accidents), or mixed emotions (i.e., amusement and repulsion in the face of ambiguous bloopers) while facial electromyographic (zygomatic and corrugator activity), cardiac (heart rate), and electrodermal (skin conductance) activity was measured during presentation of films. Since groups differed in FSIQ, all analyses included FSIQ as covariate.
Results: Preliminary analyses revealed that the three film clip categories induced as expected positive, negative, and mixed (as assessed with the minimal shared feeling of amusement and repulsion, Schimmack, 2001) emotional states, as revealed by self-report and facial expressions. However, the three conditions did not reveal differences in cardiac and electrodermal activity. Main analyses revealed that individuals with ASD did not differ from TD participants in their self-reported amusement and smiling behavior (zygomaticus activity). However, individuals with ASD experienced more repulsion towards positive film clips and less repulsion towards mixed and negative film clips, while expressing less frowning behavior (corrugator activity) in all three conditions. Individuals with ASD experienced more mixed feelings in response to positive film clips, and showed a tendency to experience less mixed feelings in mixed film clips. Finally, no differences were observed between the two groups in cardiac or electrodermal activity.
Conclusions: Individuals with ASD have similar positive emotional responses to positive, mixed, and negative film clips suggesting no differences in humor processing, but showed mainly differences in their self-report and expressive behavior when it comes to negative emotional responses. Decreased repulsion experience and expression towards mixed and negative film clips might be linked to lower sensitivity towards pain of others. Interestingly, mixed emotions are higher in individuals with ASD towards positive film clips, also related to higher negative emotional experience in this condition. Group differences in mixed feelings may be due to an altered repulsion experience in individuals with ASD. Since there were no group differences in cardiac and electrodermal activity, future studies should examine synchronization of emotional response components in individuals with ASD compared to TD participants.