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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. Consistent with the meta-analysis by Harms et al. [1], we use this term to refer specifically to performance on behavioral tasks indicating correct identification of emotions in visually-presented facial stimuli.

  2. Fischer’s r-to-z transformations did not reveal a significant difference between these coefficients (all p > .12); however, to limit multiple comparisons, we probed only the conditions wherein the correlations were largest (even if not significantly different from the other condition).

  3. This study was drawn from the same sample as was used by Lerner et al. [12]. In that study, the correlation between N170 and DANVA-2 was most evident for adult faces, while the current study indicated this relation was most evident for child faces. Due to the focus only on the DANVA-2 faces modules a slightly different participant set than in the previous sample was used (i.e. those who met inclusion criteria for the DANVA-2 faces modules only). The overall pattern of relations between these samples was not substantially different. Please contact the Corresponding Author for further inquiries regarding differences between these subsamples.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to Matthew D. Lerner.

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Garman, H.D., Spaulding, C.J., Webb, S.J. et al. Wanting it Too Much: An Inverse Relation Between Social Motivation and Facial Emotion Recognition in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 47, 890–902 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-015-0620-5

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Keywords

  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Social motivation
  • Emotion recognition
  • N170
  • Social perception