Are Communication and Social Skills Associated with Emotional Expressions during a Stimulating Play Situation in Young Autistic Children?

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
D. Girard1, V. Courchesne2, C. Cimon-Paquet2, E. Danis3, I. Soulieres4 and C. Jacques5, (1)Psychology, Université du Québec - Montréal, Montreal, QC, Canada, (2)University of Montreal, Montreal, QC, Canada, (3)University of Quebec in Montreal, Montreal, QC, Canada, (4)University of Quebec in Montreal, Montréal, QC, Canada, (5)University of Quebec in Outaouais, Gatineau, QC, Canada
Background:  Recent work suggests that we are better at interpreting facial emotions of typically developing (TD) individuals than those of individuals on the Autism Spectrum (AS) (Brewer et al., 2015). Also, preliminary findings using the Montreal Stimulating Play Situation (MSPS), showed that AS children, who have similar number of both positive and negative emotions compared to TD children, express emotions coded as “unknown” by typical raters (Jacques et al., 2015). Therefore, it is possible that the failure of TD individuals to infer the accurate mental state in AS individuals have a direct impact on the assessment of socialization and communication domains.

Objectives: To document whether the frequency of emotional expressions observed during periods of free and semi-free play in the MSPS is associated with communication and socialization skills as perceived by parents within each group.

Methods: 37 AS and 39 TD children aged between 24 and 72 months were exposed to the MSPS and filmed. Using the Noldus Observer software, two naïve raters coded the 76 videos and defined emotional expressions (positive, negative and unknown). Positive emotions were coded when the child smiled. Negative emotions were coded when the child cried or frowned. Unknown emotions were coded when there was a clear facial expression, but the rater was not able to categorize it as a positive or negative expression. 29% of the videos were double coded (K=0.33). Communication and socialization skills were assessed through parent interview using the second edition of the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale. Both groups were paired on age (p=.124).

Results: The variable “emotional expressions” represents the total number of times the child expressed each type of emotions (positive, negative, unknown) during the MSPS. There was no significant association between socialization skills, and emotional expressions in the TD group. In the AS group, results indicated a negative association between socialization skills and the frequency of unknown emotions (r=-.57, p<.05), explaining 32.9% of variance. No main effect emerged regarding the association between communication skills and emotional expressions, though there was a trend for a negative association with the frequency of unknown emotions (r=-.49, p=.074), explaining 24.2% of variance in the AS group. We conducted additional exploratory analyses to document whether each subscale of the socialization scale (interpersonal relationship, play and leisure, coping skills) was associated with emotional expressions within each group. The linear regressions revealed that there was only a significant association between the interpersonal relationship scale and the frequency of unknown emotions in the AS group (r=-.57, p<.05).

Conclusions: These preliminary results suggest that in this sample of AS children, greater deficits in socialization skills as perceived by parents, more particularly in interpersonal relationships, could be associated with higher frequency of unknown emotions during the MSPS. Our findings indicate that AS children may express emotions atypically which might, in turn, lead to a difficulty of TD individuals to correctly identify them. This association between atypical expression of emotions and incorrect identification of emotions by peers and/or parents may reduce the quality of social interactions.