Emotional valence detection in adolescents with oppositional defiant disorder/conduct disorder or autism spectrum disorder


Oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder (ODD/CD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) share poor empathic functioning and have been associated with impaired emotional processing. However, no previous studies directly compared similarities and differences in these processes for the two disorders. A two-choice emotional valence detection task requiring differentiation between positive, negative, and neutral IAPS pictures was administered to 52 adolescents (12–19 years) with ODD/CD, 52 with ASD and 24 typically developing individuals (TDI). Callous–unemotional (CU) traits were assessed by self- and parent reports using the Inventory of callous–unemotional traits. Main findings were that adolescents with ODD/CD or ASD both performed poorer than TDI in terms of accuracy, yet only the TDI—not both clinical groups—had relatively most difficulty in discriminating between positive versus neutral pictures compared to neutral–negative or positive–negative contrasts. Poorer performance was related to a higher level of CU traits. The results of the current study suggest youth with ODD/CD or ASD have a diminished ability to detect emotional valence which is not limited to facial expressions and is related to a higher level of CU traits. More specifically, youth with ODD/CD or ASD seem to have a reduced processing of positive stimuli and/or lack a ‘positive perception bias’ present in TDI that could either contribute to the symptoms and/or be a result of having the disorder and may contribute to the comorbidity of both disorders.

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This study was supported by Karakter Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University Center. The study is further supported by the European Union 7th Framework programs AGGRESSOTYPE (602805) and MATRICS (603016) and by an NWO Brain and Cognition Grant (056-24-011). We are grateful to participating families.

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Correspondence to Pierre C. M. Herpers.

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Conflict of interest

In the past 3 years, Dr. Buitelaar has been a consultant to/member of advisory board of/and/or speaker for Janssen Cilag BV, Eli Lilly, Bristol-Myer Squibb, Shering Plough, UCB, Shire, Novartis, and Servier. He is not an employee of any of these companies, and not a stock shareholder of any of these companies. He has no other financial or material support, including expert testimony, patents, and royalties. Drs. Herpers, Bakker, Greven, Wiegers, Nijhof, Baanders, and Rommelse declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This study was approved by the Dutch Central Committee on Research involving Human Subjects, protocol number NL26773.000.09 (Centrale Commissie Mensgebonden Onderzoek; CCMO). As such, all procedures performed in this study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants, and their parents, included in the study.

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Herpers, P.C.M., Bakker-Huvenaars, M.J., Greven, C.U. et al. Emotional valence detection in adolescents with oppositional defiant disorder/conduct disorder or autism spectrum disorder. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 28, 1011–1022 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-019-01282-z

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  • Emotional valence detection task
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Callous–unemotional traits