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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Correspondence to Emily Zane.

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

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

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Zane, E., Neumeyer, K., Mertens, J. et al. I Think We’re Alone Now: Solitary Social Behaviors in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Abnorm Child Psychol 46, 1111–1120 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-017-0351-0

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Keywords

  • ASD
  • Affect/emotion
  • Social context
  • Facial expressions
  • Laughter
  • Display rules