Emotion Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorders


Like alexithymia, those with
autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are also known to have problems processing
emotional information. This may at least partially account for some core
features of autistic behaviour: especially problems in social interactions.
After all, ordinary social interactions contain considerable emotional
components. This post looks at studies which have examined how those with ASDs
may have deficits in the automatic processing of emotions.

Hill and Frith (2003) describe
three main cognitive theories of autism. Of these the one that has the clearest
parallels with emotional processing theories is Baron-Cohen’s ‘mindblindness’
hypothesis. In this theory, those with ASDs are thought to have problems
intuitively understanding the minds of others. But, this does not mean that
individuals with autism cannot understand the mental states of others – it’s
just that they have to explicitly work it out rather than the knowledge being
processed implicitly.
Hill, Berthoz and Frith (2004)
found problems in the cognitive processing of emotions in individuals with
ASDs. They were also seen to have higher levels of depression than both a
control group and a group of relations of the individuals with ASDs.
So this give us some general
evidence of emotion processing problems in ASDs, but what about the dual
process model of appraisal? Some exciting new evidence comes from McIntosh,
Reichmann-Decker, Winkielman and Wilbargeret (2006) who examined the way adults
and adolescents with ASDs mimic facial expressions.
Copying facial expressions
The mimicking of other
people’s facial expression is something that we all do naturally. It oils the
wheels of social interaction. We perceive the facial expression of others, then
quickly and effortlessly flex corresponding muscles in our own faces to reflect
the feeling back. McIntosh et al. (2006) contrast this type of automatic
mimicry with the slow effortful mimicry we carry out when consciously trying to
copy another’s expression.
McIntosh et al. (2006)
compared the automatic responses of a control group with individuals with ASDs
by using facial EMG to measure movement of the major cheek and brow muscles.
There were two phases to the experiment, in the first participants simply
watched a screen on which were displayed different pictures of happy and sad
faces. In the second, participants were asked to copy the expression they saw
in the picture.
The results showed that
individuals with ASDs did not automatically mimic facial expressions they saw
in the pictures, as did the control group. On the other hand, they had no
problem imitating facial expression explicitly, indeed they were better at
imitation than the control group. McIntosh et al. (2006) argue that this fact
rules out alternative explanations of their results which include the
individuals with ASDs having problems in perceiving the faces, praxis, or
understanding the task they were carrying out.
Mimicry in the brain scanner
From a study carried out by
Dapretto, Davies, Pfeifer, et al. (2006) we even have information about the
neurological basis for these behavioural findings. In this study participants
carried out a task similar to that used by McIntosh et al. (2006) but this time
inside an fMRI scanner.
The major difference found in
brain activation between the groups was that the individuals with ASDs showed
no activation in the so-called ‘mirror neuron system’. The mirror neuron system
is hypothesised to be involved in understanding the thoughts and actions of
others, along with many other functions!
Again, individuals with ASDs
showed no difference to the control group in imitating faces, and no
differences were seen by eye tracking equipment. In other words, both groups
were looking at the photos in a similar way. Those with ASDs did, however, show
differences in brain activation when they attempted to imitate the face in the
Dapretto et al. (2006)
speculate that those with ASDs have deficits in automatic processing through
the mirror neuron system, for which other parts of their brains compensate when
imitating facial expressions.
ASDs and alexithymia
Both of these imitation
studies provide some evidence that individuals with ASDs suffer deficits in
their automatic processing of emotions, but are quite capable of imitating emotions
consciously. This provides a clear parallel with the studies carried out on
people with alexithymia, who also have problems with the automatic unconscious
processing of emotions but can clearly describe emotions that are in focal
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.