The Aesthetic Perception Ability in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Behavioural and Eye-Tracking Study
The ability to experience aesthetics plays a fundamental role in social interactions. For instance, attractive individuals are commonly perceived as possessing positive personality attributions. This suggest that beauty is an important social cue that may affect the ability to experience pleasure playing a pivotal role in social behavior.
A crucial capacity for successful social interactions is Social Cognition (SC), that is a complex cognitive construct that allows to encode and decode the social world. It is known that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have an impairment of SC abilities. These abilities seem to be related with aesthetic perception that allow a person to anticipate interaction or action of others.
Objectives: The study aims at evaluating the ability of aesthetic perception in individuals with ASD compared to typically developing controls (TD), using the Golden Beauty (GB) behavioral task and adapted for eye-tracking.
Methods: 10 individuals with ASD (mean age±SD:20.7±4.64) selected by the Reference Regional Centre for Autism of L’Aquila, and 10 TD individuals (mean age±SD:20.17±0.98) selected by the University of L’Aquila, Italy, participated in the study. All participants underwent SC battery and then GB task with stimuli (sculptures with canonical and modified proportions) presented in three experimental conditions: objective aesthetic judgment (OAJ), subjective aesthetic judgment (SAJ) and proportion judgment (PJ).
Results: Preliminary results showed that ASD group have an impairment in all SC measures, compared to TD group. In the TD group, but not in the ASD one, we found significant correlations between same SC measures and all conditions of GB task. Regarding GB performance, ASD group have a lower ability to judge as objectively beautiful and subjectively pleasing (aesthetic judgments) the sculptures, compared to TD. The same happens for the proportion judgment that is related to the perceptual-cognitive component of the task. TD group evaluated the sculptures with canonical proportion as more pleasant and more proportionated, compared to the sculptures with modified proportion. No differences in the evaluation between canonical or modified sculptures were found in ASD group. It is worth noting that the evaluation of subjective pleasure was always lower in ASD people compared to the evaluation of objective beauty and proportion of sculptures. Finally, the eye-tracking data showed that individuals with ASD have lower gaze parameters for face and bust of sculptures in each condition of GB task, compared to TD people.
Conclusions: This study showed, for the first time, that persons with ASD have an impairment in the aesthetic perception ability. The incapacity to perceive aesthetic features of ASD people has relevance in influencing their incapacity to experience interpersonal and social pleasure. This could have a significant negatively impact on social interactions. Indeed, the perception of beauty is strongly linked with the SC ability as demonstrated by the correlations between SC measures and GB task in TD people. Our findings support the idea that SC and aesthetic perception are in close relationship to each other and this relation is lost or at least impaired in persons with ASD