Emotional False Memories in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
E. J. Adler1, C. Mirandola2, M. K. Krug3, K. Argente1, J. Farren1, C. W. Nordahl1, D. G. Amaral4, S. Ghetti5 and M. Solomon6, (1)Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, University of California-Davis, Sacramento, CA, (2)Department of General Psychology, University of Padova, Italy, Padova, Italy, (3)MIND Institute, Sacramento, CA, (4)Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of California at Davis, MIND Institute, Sacramento, CA, (5)Department of Psychology, University of California-Davis, Davis, CA, (6)Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, MIND Institute , Sacramento, CA
Background:  Memory functioning in children with ASD is a relatively neglected area of research. However, there is evidence that adults with ASD, compared to adults with typical development (TD), may be less prone to experience associative illusions of memory as a result of impaired ability to engage in semantic processing (Beversdorf et al., 2000). However, it is unclear whether this pattern of results is present in children tested for memories of pictures of sequences of life events and memories that include emotional content. Work in other neurodevelopmental disorders has shown that children with non-verbal learning disorder (NLD) show a tendency to falsely recognize unseen causes of negative emotional events more than neutral events, suggesting that emotion facilitates this type of inferential error for children with NLD (Mirandola et al., 2014). In contrast, our work has shown that adolescents and young adults with ASD struggle to process positive emotion as demonstrated by their failure to process positive feedback (Solomon et al., 2011).

Objectives:  To test if emotion facilitates the rate and type of false recognition of events in a sample of children with ASD and TD.

Methods: The present study examined children with ASD (N=27; Age M=10.8, SD=1.4) and an IQ-matched sample of children with TD (N=37; Age M=11.3, SD=1.5). Participants viewed a series of photographs for scripted events (e.g., making dinner, waking up in the morning). Embedded in each scripted episode were positive, negative, and neutral consequences (i.e., effects) of unseen actions (i.e., causes). Memory was then tested on a yes/no recognition task that included old and new photographs (i.e., distractors). Three classes of distractors were used: Causal: These photographs depicted unseen causes of seen effects (positive, negative and neutral); Gap-Filling: These photographs included unseen events that were consistent with viewed scripts (positive, negative and neutral); and Inconsistent: These photographs included unseen events that were inconsistent with viewed scripts.

Results: Both groups provided strong evidence of memory for photographs as indicated by high recognition hit rates for viewed photographs and low false alarm rates of unseen and script inconsistent pictures (See Table 1). Children with ASD falsely recognized more unseen photographs than did children with TD (t=4.259, p<.001), but the type of distractor mattered. Interestingly, children with ASD were equally likely to falsely recognize both unseen causes of seen photographs and photographs consistent with the script when they were positive (t= -0.592, p=.559), while both groups were more likely to falsely recognize unseen causes (i.e. causal errors) of negative and neutral events compared to gap-filling negative and neutral events. See Figure 1. Neither group showed an association between age and rate of error type.

Conclusions: These results support past research by showing that generally children have higher overall rates of causal errors than gap-filling errors though we found that children with ASD did not show this pattern for positive events. This atypical process of positive emotion is consistent with our group's prior findings of impairment in use of positive feedback and could have important implications for self-esteem, learning, and psychopathology.