Uncovering Empathizing and Systemizing Skills in Autism Spectrum Disorder through Perception of Emotional and Structural Aspects of Music

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
H. Dahary1, S. Thierry1, T. Fernandes2, C. Rimmer1 and E. M. Quintin2, (1)McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada, (2)Educational & Counselling Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
Background: The empathizing-systemizing (E-S) theory posits that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptomology is related to biases towards empathizing and systemizing traits (Baron-Cohen, 2002). More severe ASD symptomatology is associated with greater deficits in empathizing, a drive to recognize and respond to others’ emotions, and superior skills in systemizing, a drive to analyze or construct systems. Music is a unique medium for measuring empathizing and systemizing skills of people with ASD given their common affinity and skill in this area (Heaton, 2009). The examination of musical empathizing and systemizing skills is a relatively novel line of inquiry and thus has only been explored using questionnaires with typically developing (TD) people (e.g., Kreutz et al., 2008; Dahary et al., 2018).

Objectives: The purpose of this research is to assess the ability of an ASD group in completing musical empathizing and systemizing tasks and to compare their task performance to that of a TD group.

Methods: Seventeen adolescents with ASD (aged 12-16 years) and 50 TD adults (aged 18-32 years) completed a musical empathizing task and a musical systemizing task using stimuli adapted from Vieillard et al., 2008. On the musical empathizing task, participants identified the emotion (happy, sad, or scary) of musical excepts and on the musical systemizing task, participants identified if pairs of musical excerpts were the same or different, with one repeated pitch altered on different trials. Both tasks were composed of 24 trials which varied in stimuli complexity (12 easy and 12 difficult trials). It took about 30 minutes to complete both tasks.

Results: The ASD group performed above chance level on the musical empathizing (≥33%) and systemizing (≥50%) tasks, demonstrating successful completion of both tasks (p < .001). A mixed design ANOVA model revealed a main effect of task such that, both ASD and TD groups were more accurate on the musical empathizing task than on the musical systemizing task (p <.001). A 3-way interaction between task, stimuli complexity, and group showed that ASD and TD groups were equally accurate on the musical empathizing task across easy and difficult trials, but not on the musical systemizing task (p < .05). While the ASD group performed less accurately on the easy trials of the musical systemizing task, both groups were equally accurate on the difficult trials.

Conclusions: This study is the first to assess musical empathizing and systemizing skills in ASD through task performance. We demonstrate that adolescents with ASD can understand both emotional and structural elements of musical excerpts; partially supporting but also running counter to the E-S theory. Results may instead support the enhanced perceptual functioning theory of ASD (Mottron et al., 2006), which posits that, when processing complex auditory information, enhanced perception of people with ASD creates a disadvantage (i.e., easy trials of the systemizing task) or can confer an advantage or lead to typical perception (i.e., difficult trials of the systemizing task). However, processing of emotions in music is typical. Results thus lend credence to using music interventions to teach emotion processing skills in ASD.

See more of: Emotion
See more of: Emotion