Exploring Self-Conscious Emotion Processing in Adolescents with High Functioning Autism

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
K. Jankowski, D. Cosme and J. H. Pfeifer, Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR
Background: Autism is commonly associated with atypical emotion processing and perspective-taking abilities. These atypicalities can impose challenges in inferring and appropriately responding to others’ thoughts/feelings, which can negatively impact social interactions. While most autism research has explored basic, nonsocial emotion-processing in young children, little is known about advanced, social emotion processing in older youths.

Objectives: Using dynamic, more ecologically valid and salient stimuli, we investigated self-conscious emotion processing in adolescents with high functioning autism (ASD) and neurotypical peers (NT). Specifically, we explored adolescents’ ability to infer their peers’ level of embarrassment and pride, while manipulating perspective-taking demands.

Methods: Adolescent males ages 11-17 (21 ASD, 11 NT; recruitment ongoing) completed a novel, self-conscious emotion task, consisting of videos of peers singing in a competition. The task included 24 videos representing two factors: emotion (embarrassment, pride) and perspective-taking demands (low, high). In videos requiring low perspective-taking, singers’ emotions were congruent with their performance (sing poorly, look embarrassed; sing well, look proud); in videos requiring high perspective-taking, they were incongruent (sing poorly, look proud; sing well, look embarrassed). Participants used a 4-point Likert scale (0=none to 3=high) to rate how intensely singers felt embarrassed and proud. To investigate the fixed effects of group, emotion, and perspective-taking demands on inferred emotion ratings, we ran multilevel modeling in R.

Results: First, we ran a model with emotion, perspective-taking demands, and their interaction as fixed effects. There was a significant effect of perspective-taking demands [t(733)=-3.89, p<0.001] such that participants gave higher ratings during videos requiring low perspective-taking, and a significant interaction effect of emotion x perspective-taking demands [t(733)=-3.89, p<0.001]. Second, we ran the same model and included group as a fixed effect. There was no significant effect of group nor its interaction. Furthermore, adding the fixed effect of group did not significantly improve model fit (Model 1: AIC=1424.4, BIC=1452.2; -2 log Likelihood=-706.18; Model 2: AIC=1424.7, BIC=1471.2; -2 log Likelihood=-702.36; χ2 (4)=7.647, ns).

Conclusions: Collapsed across groups, adolescents report lower emotion intensity ratings during conditions requiring higher perspective-taking, suggesting that they perceive their peers as feeling less embarrassed and proud when their performance is incongruent with their emotions. Interestingly, adolescents with ASD make similar inferences about their peers’ emotions as NT adolescents. Furthermore, heightened perspective-taking demands similarly reduce the intensity ratings of adolescents with and without ASD. These findings suggest that adolescents with ASD may be able to accurately infer others’ emotions, especially in the context of multiple facial/postural cues using more salient and ecologically-valid stimuli. These findings contrast with previous reports of impaired emotion processing in younger children, which may reflect developmental differences or differences in paradigm design. Broadly, these findings suggest that adolescents with high functioning ASD may have relatively intact emotion recognition abilities, but impairments in real world social interactions may be driven by difficulties in applying this information and/or responding in socially appropriate ways.