The Influence of Autistic Traits and Trait Anxiety on Attentional Bias to Emotional Faces: An Eye-Tracking Study in Healthy Young Adults

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
W. Wu1, B. Wan1 and J. Jing2, (1)Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China, (2)Maternal and Child Health, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China
Background: Healthy individuals, as well as adults with autism, usually demonstrate the anger superiority effect (ASE), i.e., reaction time (RT) to angry faces faster than positive faces, which is not associated with anxiety. While, in addition to the ASE, the time duration of negative relative to positive faces can reflect the emotional processing in the field of attentional bias. Yet, it is unknown whether autistic and anxiety level affect the emotional processing or not.

Objectives: The present study aimed to clarify the association between autistic traits/trait anxiety in healthy young adults and the time duration of negative relative to positive faces with a free-view paradigm.

Methods: We recruited fifty-two healthy adults (age: Mean=20.8, range 18~25 years, sixteen males), and their autistic traits and trait anxiety were self-reported using Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ, including five subscales of autistic behavior: social skills, attention switching, attention to detail, communication, and imagination) and State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) respectively. Total fixation duration (TFD) and first fixation duration (FFD) indices of attention bias to emotional information [negative (angry and sad) and positive (happy), compared with neutral faces] were calculated in Tobii Spectrum Pro software.

Results: The individuals’ trait anxiety level was positively correlated with AQ total, social skills, attention switching, and communication scores (r=0.504, 0.421, 0.419, 0.456, respectively; df=50; all p<0.005). There was no significant correlation between autistic traits/trait anxiety and TFD/FFD of negative relative to positive faces. Nevertheless, the trait anxiety was significantly correlated with FFD of angry relative to happy faces (r=-0.298, df=50, p=0.032); and AQ social skill was significantly correlated with FFD of sad relative to happy faces (r=0.304, df=50; p=0.028). The associations were robust with adjustment for age, sex and state anxiety during the eye-tracking experiment.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that adults with deficit of social skills show long-term attention of sad relative to happy faces and adults with higher trait anxiety show short-term attention of angry relative to happy faces in emotional processing. The present study provides preliminary results for emotional processing in clinical autism spectrum disorder and clinical anxiety disorder.