Complex Emotion Processing in Adults with Autism: Evidence of Atypical Brain Response Modulation

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
M. H. Black1,2, K. Iyer3,4, M. A. Albrecht5, O. V. Lipp6, S. Bolte7,8,9, T. Tan2,3 and S. J. Girdler1,2, (1)School of Occupational Therapy, Social Work and Speech Pathology, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia, (2)Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC), Long Pocket, Brisbane, Australia, (3)School of Mechanical Engineering, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia, (4)School of Biological Sciences, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia, (5)Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute, School of Public Health, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia, (6)School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia, (7)Center for Neurodevelopmental Disorders (KIND), Center for Psychiatry Research, Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, (8)Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC), Brisbane, Australia, (9)Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Center for Psychiatry Research, Stockholm County Council, Sweden

The processing of facial emotion in adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is poorly understood and it is possible that past studies may not adequately reflect facial emotion recognition (FER) functioning of autistic adults. Using more socially relevant and complex stimuli may provide greater insights into the mechanisms underlying FER impairment in ASD. Electroencephalography (EEG) measures are capable of dynamically capturing electrical activity of neural networks and may provide further insights into the nature of FER impairment in adults with ASD during a complex and dynamic FER task.


We investigated the neural oscillations of autistic adults and non-autistic adults to provide insights into the mechanisms underlying ASD-linked FER impairment.


Behavioural performance (accuracy) and neural oscillations of 22 autistic adults and 24 non-autistic typically developing (TD) age, gender and IQ matched controls were examined during a complex FER task. Participants were required to actively recognize positively and negatively valenced complex, dynamic facial emotion stimuli taken from the Cambridge Mind Reading Face-Voice Battery (CAMS).

Alpha (8-15 Hertz), theta (4-8 Hertz), beta (16-30 Hertz) and mu (8-12 Hertz) rhythms were extracted from the EEG data collected during the FER task. Median power values for positive and negative emotions were extracted for each frequency and electrode. EEG data were examined according to region (frontal, central, temporal, parietal, and occipital) and hemisphere (left, right) to examine potential differences in the distribution of power in the frequency bands.


Autistic adults were less accurate during facial emotion recognition, particularly in response to positive emotions. A reduction in accuracy was present concomitant with increased power primarily in the theta band in the left occipital hemisphere during positive FER. A global increase in theta activity was seen in response to negative emotions. Autistic adults also showed altered differentiation of mu rhythm activity. Mu suppression was reduced to positive emotion relative to negative emotion in autistic adults, with the opposite being true for TD adults.


Increased theta power for autistic adults may represent hyper-reactivity to emotional stimuli and greater requirements for top-down cognitive control during the processing of negative emotion. Altered differentiation of the mu rhythm to emotional stimuli suggests atypical functioning of the mirror neuron system that may also contribute to ASD-linked FER impairments.