Emotional Language Use in Descriptions of Social and/or Emotional Pictures By Younger and Older Children with ASD

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
E. J. Teh1, M. J. Yap1 and S. J. Rickard Liow2, (1)Psychology, National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore, (2)Otolaryngology, National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore
Background: Compared to typically developing children, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) reportedly show deficits in recognizing and describing emotions in others, and may have difficulty deriving meaning in social contexts. One method used to study emotion-processing in children with ASD is indexing their emotional language production in story-telling tasks using picture-books. However, a limitation of existing studies is that experimental stimuli tend to conflate emotional and social information, making it difficult to separate deficits in the two domains. Moreover, while social and emotional processing skills improve with age in typical development, little is currently known about their development in children with ASD.

Objectives: First, we aimed to systematically investigate the effects of emotional valence and social information on the production of emotional terms in picture descriptions by children with and without ASD. Second, we aimed to examine developmental changes in these effects across younger (preschool) and older (school-age) groups.

Methods: Participants were 10 younger (5-6 years old) and 10 older (8-12 years old) children with ASD, and 20 typically developing children matched-pairwise to the participants with ASD on age, gender, non-verbal IQ (all >70), and socioeconomic status. The experimental stimuli were 48 pictures varying on valence (positive/negative/neutral) and social engagement levels (high or low). All pictures depicted one or more person(s) in common everyday situations (see example in Figure 1). Participants were asked the task prompt, “What is happening in this picture?”, and allowed to respond freely with their descriptions. The frequency of emotional terms produced by each group was compared across valence and social engagement conditions using mixed ANOVA.

Results: While children with ASD generally produced fewer emotional terms than the control children in all negatively- and positively-valenced conditions, we found two significant three-way interactions. First, valence effects were moderated by social engagement information differently in ASD and control groups. Children with ASD produced fewer emotional terms in high-social than low-social emotional conditions; whereas typically developing children produced most emotional terms under high-social and negatively-valenced conditions. Second, age effects were moderated by group and social engagement information. For children with ASD, emotional terms increased with age and lower social engagement; whereas for typically developing children, higher social engagement increased emotional terms in the older group only.

Conclusions: Children with ASD showed deficits in emotional language use compared to typically developing children, which remained evident despite age-based increases in production. Our results are consistent with existing studies reporting reduced use of emotional language by children with ASD, and extend them by showing that increased social information may adversely impact emotional language production in ASD. The combination of emotional and social cues appears to create a cognitive-processing overload in children with ASD. Our findings also provide preliminary support for a model of separable components of social-cognitive processing in ASD, which contrasts with integrated processing of social and emotional information in the neurotypical brain. Future research directions for social cognition and emotion-processing in ASD are suggested, as well as practical applications for researchers and clinicians in the field.