Do Adolescents with Autism Use Task-Irrelevant Facial Expressions of Threat to Adapt Their Behaviour?

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
C. Ioannou1, E. Vilarem1, M. El Zein1, V. Wyart1, I. Scheid2, F. Amsellem3, R. Delorme3, C. Chevallier1 and J. Grèzes1, (1)Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, France, (2)Robert Debre University Hospital, Paris, France, (3)Institut Pasteur, Paris, France

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterised by significant atypicalities in the affective domain and research suggests that they process or react to social cues differently from typically developing (TD) individuals. The roots of such difficulties are still debated but it has been suggested that either difficulties in processing the emotional cues themselves or/and dysfunctions in the mechanisms underlying the preparation of appropriate response behaviour to perceived social signals, could play an important role in these social deficits. Recently, we demonstrated that adolescents with ASD can accurately process emotional displays (Ioannou et al. under review) while taking into account contextual information (gaze direction). These results suggest the possibility that significant difficulties in social interaction and communication seen in ASD may exist independently of their ability to process the social signals themselves.


The present study moves a step further by addressing whether, when decoding skills appear preserved, adolescents with ASD can exploit social cues adequately during real-life social interactions to adapt their behaviour.


To address the question of how emotional signals impact action decisions, we use ecological stimuli developed by Vilarem et al. (in preparation) reproducing a complex social environment, i.e. a waiting room with four seats, two of which are occupied by two task-irrelevant individuals, one with a neutral expression and the other with either a neutral, angry or fearful expression of varying intensity. Fearful and angry displays, while both indicating the presence of a potential threat in their environment, differ in their social functions, and, as research suggests, are associated with different approach or avoidance tendencies. Of interest here, neuro-typical adult participants, when requested to make spontaneous, free action choices between non-emotional targets (empty seats), they choose more often to avoid individuals with an angry expression, by selecting the chair on the opposite side of the scene, next to the neutral face and to approach individuals with a fearful expression, by selecting to sit next to the fearful person.

In the present study, 25 adolescents (12-17 yrs old) with ASD and 25 age-, gender-, IQ- matched TD controls will be tested using an adapted version of the above spontaneous-decision of action task in order to test whether adolescents with ASD can exploit task-irrelevant emotional displays to select their subsequent course of action. To date 20 ASD and 18 TD adolescents have been tested and recruitment will be completed in November 2016.


Preliminary results reveal a trend for choice tendencies (interaction emotion by tendency) similar to adults, in both groups. TD and ASD adolescents avoided anger significantly more than fear but to date only the TD group, and not the ASD, approached fear significantly more than anger. Complementary analyses on movement kinematics and pupil dilation will be performed.


Preliminary results suggest that while ASD adolescents appear to be able to exploit anger cues to adapt their behaviour (avoidance - defence behaviour system), they may not perceive fearful expression as an affiliative cue leading to approach behaviour.