Basic and Self-Conscious Emotional Experiences Recounted By Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder
The ability to reflect on one’s emotional experiences is central to effective social and interpersonal life. Studies have shown that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) struggle with recounting more complex emotions, but not basic emotions (Losh & Capps, 2006). This is important because complex emotions, especially self-conscious emotions (e.g., guilt, pride), facilitate social relationships and societal norms.
Using a detailed linguistic coding scheme, the purpose of this study was to evaluate children’s personal recounting of specific basic and self-conscious emotional experiences in contrast to studies that have examined general categories of emotions. Relations between ASD symptomatology, Theory of Mind (ToM) abilities, receptive vocabulary, and recounting of emotions were also assessed.
Twenty-three children with ASD and 38 neurotypical (NT) children participated, and were tested following IRB approval and appropriate consent procedures. See Table 1 for participant characteristics (e.g., SRS-2, CARS-2, FSIQ, ToM, etc). Children were asked to recount two experiences of each basic (i.e., happy, fear, sad), and self-conscious emotion (i.e., pride, embarrassment, guilt). Responses were audio-recorded, and then transcribed and coded by two raters. Each response was coded for appropriateness of the content (0-3), length in number of clauses, and number of prompts needed to elicit a response.
Children with ASD provided less appropriate content in recounting experiences of pride, embarrassment, and guilt than NT children. However, no significant differences were found between children with and without ASD when recounting experiences of basic emotions. In terms of number of clauses, children with ASD produced briefer descriptions of emotional experiences pertaining to embarrassment and guilt than NT children. Across both types of emotions, children with ASD needed more prompts in order to elicit examples of the emotions than NT children. However, this was qualified by the fact that for some emotions (i.e., guilt), children with ASD were more likely to simply not give a response, and therefore we did not continue with prompting. In children with ASD, social functioning (SRS-2) predicted the number of prompts needed to elicit sad, embarrassing, and guilty recounts, as well as the number of clauses in their recount of embarrassing experiences. ToM predicted the appropriateness of the content for sad and pride recounts, and the number of clauses for sad experiences but only for children with ASD. For NT children, vocabulary ability predicted appropriateness of the content for fear and pride recounts.
Our findings show that children with ASD were on par with their NT peers in recounting experiences of basic emotions. However, for self-conscious emotions, children with ASD showed less appropriate content and, in some cases, briefer responses. Children with ASD also needed more prompting in eliciting emotional experiences than NT children. There was some evidence that social functioning and ToM were predictive of the performance of children with ASD, whereas only vocabulary predicted performance for NT children and only for a subset of emotions. Many emotion training programs focus exclusively on basic emotions. Our results suggest that it may be more beneficial if programs focus on self-conscious emotions.