Attenuated Fear and Accentuated Frustration Responses to Real-World Challenges Aimed at Eliciting Negative Emotions
Objectives: To examine emotional reactivity in toddlers with ASD compared to their non-ASD peers in response to in-vivo behavioral probes, eliciting three emotions: joy and the conceptually distinct emotions of fear and anger.
Methods: Selected episodes from the Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery (Lab-TAB; Goldsmith & Rothbart, 1999) were administered to 99 toddlers (M=21mo, range: 13-30mo): 43 with ASD and age-matched peers with developmental delays (DD; n=16) or with typical development (TD; n=40). Nine episodes were designed to elicit Fear, Joy, and Anger. Intensity of emotional response was coded offline by blinded coders and standardized composites were computed across facial, vocal, and musculoskeletal channels.
Results: Between-group ANOVAs revealed no significant effect of diagnosis for intensity of joy, (F(2,99)=.14, p=.87) but significant group differences for intensity of fear (F(2, 95)=6.44, p<.01) and anger (F(2,98)=3.54, p<.05). Toddlers with ASD exhibited less intense fear than TD (p=.002; d=.75) and DD (p=.011, d=.80) controls and expressed significantly more intense anger than their DD peers (p=.016, d=.73), and marginally more intense anger than TD (p=.064, d=.40) controls. Within the ASD group, the ADOS-Toddler Social Affect score was significantly negatively correlated with the intensity of joy (r=-.33, p<.05) but not with the negatively-valenced emotions.
Conclusions: Results indicate that, compared to non-ASD peers, toddlers with ASD exhibited similar levels of positive affect in response to pleasurable stimuli. This finding is consistent with work showing that processes underlying the neural response to obtaining rewards (i.e., liking, or the hedonic aspect of the reward system) may be intact in ASD (Damiano et al., 2014). However, our results indicate that toddlers with ASD exhibited less intense fear responses to novel and potentially frightening stimuli and more intense angry affect in the context of goal blockage during the Lab-TAB’s naturalistic and standardized emotion-elicitation probes. Consistent with studies of typically-developing infants (Planalp et al., 2017), our results suggest utility in isolating components of negative affectivity. The basic attentional and physiological processes underlying attenuated reactivity during frightening situations and accentuated reactivity during frustrating situations require further examination.
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