Child Psychiatry & Human Development

, Volume 47, Issue 6, pp 890–902 | Cite as

Wanting it Too Much: An Inverse Relation Between Social Motivation and Facial Emotion Recognition in Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Heather D. Garman
  • Christine J. Spaulding
  • Sara Jane Webb
  • Amori Yee Mikami
  • James P. Morris
  • Matthew D. LernerEmail author
Original Article


This study examined social motivation and early-stage face perception as frameworks for understanding impairments in facial emotion recognition (FER) in a well-characterized sample of youth with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Early-stage face perception (N170 event-related potential latency) was recorded while participants completed a standardized FER task, while social motivation was obtained via parent report. Participants with greater social motivation exhibited poorer FER, while those with shorter N170 latencies exhibited better FER for child angry faces stimuli. Social motivation partially mediated the relationship between a faster N170 and better FER. These effects were all robust to variations in IQ, age, and ASD severity. These findings augur against theories implicating social motivation as uniformly valuable for individuals with ASD, and augment models suggesting a close link between early-stage face perception, social motivation, and FER in this population. Broader implications for models and development of FER in ASD are discussed.


Autism spectrum disorder Social motivation Emotion recognition N170 Social perception 



We would like to thank the children and parents who participated, as well as the research assistants who aided with data collection. This study was funded in part by an Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Fellowship from the American Psychological Foundation, a Dissertation Award from the American Psychological Association, a grant from the Association for Psychological Science, the James & Elizabeth Wright Fellowship from the Jefferson Scholars Foundation to MDL. MDL was also partially supported by a Visiting Scholar appointment at the Center for Health Innovation, Adelphi University. JPM was supported by NIMH grant R00MH079617-03.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

All authors report no biomedical financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Heather D. Garman
    • 1
  • Christine J. Spaulding
    • 1
  • Sara Jane Webb
    • 2
  • Amori Yee Mikami
    • 3
  • James P. Morris
    • 4
  • Matthew D. Lerner
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyStony Brook UniversityStony BrookUSA
  2. 2.Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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