Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 46, Issue 5, pp 1111–1120 | Cite as

I Think We’re Alone Now: Solitary Social Behaviors in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Emily ZaneEmail author
  • Kayla Neumeyer
  • Julia Mertens
  • Amanda Chugg
  • Ruth B. Grossman


Research into emotional responsiveness in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has yielded mixed findings. Some studies report uniform, flat and emotionless expressions in ASD; others describe highly variable expressions that are as or even more intense than those of typically developing (TD) individuals. Variability in findings is likely due to differences in study design: some studies have examined posed (i.e., not spontaneous expressions) and others have examined spontaneous expressions in social contexts, during which individuals with ASD—by nature of the disorder—are likely to behave differently than their TD peers. To determine whether (and how) spontaneous facial expressions and other emotional responses are different from TD individuals, we video-recorded the spontaneous responses of children and adolescents with and without ASD (between the ages of 10 and 17 years) as they watched emotionally evocative videos in a non-social context. Researchers coded facial expressions for intensity, and noted the presence of laughter and other responsive vocalizations. Adolescents with ASD displayed more intense, frequent and varied spontaneous facial expressions than their TD peers. They also produced significantly more emotional vocalizations, including laughter. Individuals with ASD may display their emotions more frequently and more intensely than TD individuals when they are unencumbered by social pressure. Differences in the interpretation of the social setting and/or understanding of emotional display rules may also contribute to differences in emotional behaviors between groups.


ASD Affect/emotion Social context Facial expressions Laughter Display rules 



The research reported here was funded by a grant from the NIH (NIDCD 1R01DC012774-01, Grossman PI). We are thankful to the staff at FACE Lab, Emerson College, for help with editing stimulus materials, collecting data and preparing participant videos for coding. We also extend appreciation to the children and families who generously gave their time to participate in this study.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

Ethical approval was obtained from the Institutional Review Board at Emerson College.

Informed Consent

Written informed consent was obtained from the parent or guardian of every child who participated, and written assent was obtained from the children themselves.


  1. American Psychiatric Association, A. P. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Barbaro, J., & Dissanayake, C. (2007). A comparative study of the use and understanding of self-presentational display rules in children with high functioning autism and Asperger’s disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(7), 1235–1246. Scholar
  3. Begeer, S., Koot, H. M., Rieffe, C., Meerum Terwogt, M., & Stegge, H. (2008). Emotional competence in children with autism: Diagnostic criteria and empirical evidence. Developmental Review, 28(3), 342–369. Scholar
  4. Begeer, S., Banerjee, R., Rieffe, C., Terwogt, M. M., Potharst, E., Stegge, H., & Koot, H. M. (2011). The understanding and self-reported use of emotional display rules in children with autism spectrum disorders. Cognition & Emotion, 25(5), 947–956. Scholar
  5. Bryant, G. A., & Aktipis, C. A. (2014). The animal nature of spontaneous human laughter. Evolution and Human Behavior, 35(4), 327–335. Scholar
  6. Buck, R., Losow, J. I., Murphy, M. M., & Costanzo, P. (1992). Social facilitation and inhibition of emotional expression and communication. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(6), 962–968. Scholar
  7. Capps, L., Kasari, C., Yirmiya, N., & Sigman, M. (1993). Parental perception of emotional expressiveness in children with autism. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(3), 475–484. Scholar
  8. Chapman, A. J. (1973). Social facilitation of laughter in children. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9(6), 528–541. Scholar
  9. Chapman, A. J., & Wright, D. S. (1976). Social enhancement of laughter: an experimental analysis of some companion variables. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 21(2), 201–218. Scholar
  10. Eisner, F., Ekman, P., Scott, S. K., Sauter, D. A., Eisner, F., Ekman, P., & Scott, S. K. (2015). Cross-cultural recognition of basic emotions through nonverbal emotional vocalizations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112, E3086–E3086. Scholar
  11. Ekman, P. (2004). Emotional and conversational nonverbal signals. Language, Knowledge, and Representation. doi:
  12. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Faso, D. J., Sasson, N. J., & Pinkham, A. E. (2015). Evaluating posed and evoked facial expressions of emotion from adults with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(1), 75–89. Scholar
  14. Fridlund, A. J., Apfelbaum, B., Blum, G., Brown, D., Balakrishnan, J., Loomis, J., et al. (1991). Sociality of solitary smiling : potentiation by an implicit audience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 229–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Grossman, R. B. (2015). Judgments of social awkwardness from brief exposure to children with and without high-functioning autism. Autism : The International Journal of Research and Practice, 19(5), 580–587. Scholar
  16. Grossman, R. B., Edelson, L. R., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2013). emotional facial and vocal expressions during story retelling by children and adolescents with high-functioning autism. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56(June 2013), 1035–1044. Scholar
  17. Hochschild, A. R. (1979). Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85(3), 551–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hudenko, W.J., Stone, W., & Bachorowski, J. (2009). Laughter differs in children with autism: An acoustic analysis of laughs produced by children with and without the disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 1392–1400.
  19. Hus, V., & Lord, C. (2014). The Autism diagnositic observation schedule, module 4: revised algorithm and standardized severity scores. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(8), 1996–2012. Scholar
  20. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. The Nervous Child, 2, 217–250. Scholar
  21. Kasari, C., Sigman, M., Mundy, P., & Yirmiya, N. (1990). Affective sharing in the context of joint attention interactions of normal, autistic, and mentally retarded children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 20(1), 87–100 Retrieved from Scholar
  22. Kasari, C., Sigman, M., & Yirmiya, N. (1993). Focused and social attention of autistic children in interactions with familiar and unfamiliar adults: A comparison of autistic, mentally retarded, and normal children. Development and Psychopathology, 5(3), 403–414. Scholar
  23. Kaufman, A. S., & Kaufman, N. L. (2004). Kaufman brief intelligence test: KBIT 2. Bloomington: Pearson.Google Scholar
  24. Kraut, R. E. (1982). Social presence, facial feedback, and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42(5), 853–863. Scholar
  25. Lord, C., Rutter, M., & Le Couteur, A. (2003). Autism Diagnostic Interview- Revised. Western Psychological Services.Google Scholar
  26. Lord, C., DiLavore, P. C., Gotham, K., Guthrie, W., Luyster, R. J., Risi, S., Rutter, M. (2012). Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule: ADOS-2. Western Psychological Services, Los Angeles, CA.Google Scholar
  27. Matsumoto, D., Takeuchi, S., Andayani, S., Kouznetsova, N., & Krupp, D. (1998). The contribution of individualism vs. collectivism to cross-national differences in display rules. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 147–165. Scholar
  28. Matsumoto, D., Yoo, S. H., & Nakagawa, S. (2008). Culture, emotion regulation, and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(6), 925–937. Scholar
  29. Mazefsky, C. A., & White, S. W. (2014). Emotion regulation: concepts & practice in autism spectrum disorder. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23(1), 15–24. Scholar
  30. Mazefsky, C. A., Borue, X., Day, T. N., & Minshew, N. J. (2014). Emotion regulation patterns in adolescents with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder: Comparison to typically developing adolescents and association with psychiatric symptoms. Autism Research, 7(3), 344–354. Scholar
  31. McIntosh, D. N., Reichmann-Decker, A., Winkielman, P., & Wilbarger, J. L. (2006). When the social mirror breaks: deficits in automatic, but not voluntary, mimicry of emotional facial expressions in autism. Developmental Science, 9(3), 295–302. Scholar
  32. Namba, S., Makihara, S., Kabir, R. S., Miyatani, M., & Nakao, T. (2016). spontaneous facial expressions are different from posed facial expressions: morphological properties and dynamic sequences. Current Psychology, 1–13.
  33. Reddy, V., Williams, E., & Vaughan, A. (2002). Sharing humour and laughter in autism and Down’s syndrome. British Journal of Psychology, 93(2), 219–242. Scholar
  34. Rinn, W. E. (1984). The neuropsychology of facial expression: a review of the neurological and psychological mechanisms for producing facial expressions. Psychological Bulletin, 95(1), 52–77. Scholar
  35. Robbins, B. D., & Vandree, K. (2009). The self-regulation of humor expression: a mixed method, phenomenological investigation of suppressed laughter. The Humanistic Psychologist, 37(1), 49–78. Scholar
  36. Robertson, J. M., Tanguay, P. E., L’Ecuyer, S., Sims, A., & Waltrip, C. (1999). Domains of social communication handicap in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 38(6), 738–745. Scholar
  37. Rozga, A., King, T. Z., Vuduc, R. W., & Robins, D. L. (2013). Undifferentiated facial electromyography responses to dynamic, audio-visual emotion displays in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Developmental Science, 16(4), 499–514. Scholar
  38. Ruch, W., & Ekman, P. (2001). The expressive pattern of laughter. Emotion Qualia, and Consciousness, (JULY 2001), 426--443. doi:
  39. Rutter, M., Bailey, A., & Lord, C. (2003). Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ). Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.Google Scholar
  40. Safdar, S., Friedlmeier, W., Matsumoto, D., Yoo, S. H., Kwantes, C. T., Kakai, H., & Shigemasu, E. (2009). Variations of emotional display rules within and across cultures: A comparison between Canada, USA, and Japan. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 41(1), 1–10. Scholar
  41. Scott, S., Lavan, N., Chen, S., & Mcgettigan, C. (2015). Europe PMC Funders Group The social life of laughter, 18(12), 618–620. doi:
  42. Semel, E., Wiig, E. H., & Secord, W. A. (2003). Clinical evaluation of language fundamentals, fourth edition (CELF-4) (4th ed.). Toronto: The Psychological Corporation/A Harcourt Assessment Company.Google Scholar
  43. Smoski, M. J., & Bachorowski, J. A. (2003). Antiphonal laughter between friends and strangers. Cognition & Emotion, 17(2), 327–340. Scholar
  44. Stagg, S. D., Slavny, R., Hand, C., Cardoso, A., & Smith, P. (2014). Does facial expressivity count? How typically developing children respond initially to children with autism. Autism, 18(6), 704–711. Scholar
  45. Stel, M., Van Den Heuvel, C., & Smeets, R. C. (2008). Facial feedback mechanisms in autistic spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1250–1258. Scholar
  46. Trevisan, D. A., Bowering, M., & Birmingham, E. (2016). Alexithymia, but not autism spectrum disorder, may be related to the production of emotional facial expressions. Moleular Autism 7, 46.
  47. Warnes, G. R., Bolker, B., Lumley, T., & Johnson, R. C. (2013). gmodels: Various R programming tools for model fitting. Retrieved from
  48. Yarczower, M., & Daruns, L. (1982). Social inhibition of spontaneous facial expressions in children. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(4), 831–837. Scholar
  49. Yirmiya, N., Kasari, C., Sigman, M., & Mundy, P. (1989). Facial expressions of affect in autistic, mentally retarded and normal children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 30(5), 725–735. Scholar
  50. Yoshimura, S., Sato, W., Uono, S., & Toichi, M. (2015). Impaired overt facial mimicry in response to dynamic facial expressions in high-functioning autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(5), 131801328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Zeman, J., & Garber, J. (1996). display rules for anger, sadness, and pain: it depends on who is watching. Child Development, 67(3), 957–973. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.FACE Lab at Emerson CollegeBostonUSA
  2. 2.Communication Sciences and Disorders at Emerson CollegeBostonUSA
  3. 3.UMMS Shriver CenterBostonUSA

Personalised recommendations