Skip to main content

Expressive Incoherence and Alexithymia in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Abstract

Expressive incoherence can be implicated in socio-emotional communicative problems in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The present study examined expressive incoherence in 37 children with ASD and 41 typically developing (TD) children aged 3–13 years old during a frustration task. The role of alexithymia in expressive incoherence was also assessed. Compared to TD children, children with ASD had higher expressive incoherence, such as more neutral and positive emotion expressions during negative behaviors, but not in the expression of negative emotions during positive behaviors. Further analyses revealed that alexithymia moderated the expressions of positive emotions during negative behaviors. These results suggest that children with ASD may benefit from interventions targeting alexithymia to increase emotional coherence, which may improve socio-emotional communication.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Among the 37 children diagnosed with ASD 20 had been previously diagnosed with low-functioning ASD (3 female) and 17 had been previously diagnosed with high-functioning ASD (2 female). Children in the low-functioning ASD group had either intellectual or language delays, or both, and attended special education schools. Children in the high-functioning group did not have any intellectual or language delays and attended regular schools. Analyses comparing children with low-functioning ASD and high-functioning ASD were carried out (see Online Resources 1 through 3) and confirmed that children who were previously diagnosed with low-functioning ASD did not differ from children who were previously diagnosed with high-functioning ASD in a way that would affect the interpretation of the results.

References

  1. Alter, A. L., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2009). Uniting the tribes of fluency to form a metacognitive nation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(3), 219–235. doi:10.1177/1088868309341564.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Asperger, H. (1944). Die autistischen Psychopathen im Kindesalter. Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, 117. In 76–136. ( U. Frith, Trans.) In U. Frith (Ed.), (1991) Autism and Asperger Syndrome (pp. 37–92). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1007/BF01837709.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Barrett, L. F. (2006). Are emotions natural kinds? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(1), 28–58. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00003.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. Begeer, S. (2005). Social and emotional skills and understanding of children with autism spectrum disorder (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from: http://www.ara.vu.nl/fileadmin/user_upload/publications/Social_and_emotional_skills_and_understanding_of_children_with_ASD.pdf.

  5. Berthoz, S., & Hill, E. L. (2005). The validity of using self-reports to assess emotion regulation abilities in adults with autism spectrum disorder. European Psychiatry, 20(3), 291–298. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2004.06.013.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Bieberich, A. A., & Morgan, S. B. (2004). Self-regulation and affective expression during play in children with autism or Down Syndrome: A short-term longitudinal study. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(4), 439–448. doi:10.1023/B:JADD.0000037420.16169.28.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. Bird, G., Press, C., & Richardson, D. C (2011). The role of alexithymia in reduced eye-fixation in autism spectrum conditions. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(11), 1556–1564. doi:10.1007/s10803-011-1183-3.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. Bird, G., Silani, G., Brindley, R., White, S., Frith, U., & Singer, T. (2010). Empathic brain responses in insula are modulated by levels of alexithymia but not autism. Brain, 133, 1515–1525. doi:10.1093/brain/awq060.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  9. Brewer, R., Biotti, F., Catmur, C., Press, C., Happé, F., Cook, R., & Bird, G (2016). Can neurotypical individuals read autistic facial expressions? Atypical production of emotional facial expression in autism spectrum disorders. Autism Research, 9(2), 262–271. doi:10.1002/aur.1508.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Buck, R. (1980). Nonverbal behavior and the theory of emotion: The facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(5), 811–824. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.38.5.811.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Cacioppo, J. T., Uchino, B. N., Crites, S. L., Snydersmith, M. A., Smith, G., Berntson, G. G., & Lang, P. J. (1992). Relationship between facial expressiveness and sympathetic activation in emotion: A critical review, with emphasis on modelling underlying mechanisms and individual differences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(1), 110–128. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.62.1.110.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Centerbar, D. B., Clore, G. L., Schnall, S., & Garvin, E. (2008). Affective incoherence: When affective concepts and embodied reactions clash. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(4), 560–578. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.94.4.560.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. Chaplin, T. M. (2015). Gender and emotion expression: A developmental contextual perspective. Emotion Review, 7(1), 14–21. doi:10.1177/1754073914544408.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  14. Cook, R., Brewer, R., Shah, P., & Bird, G. (2013). Alexithymia, not autism, predicts poor recognition of emotional facial expressions. Psychological Science, 24(5), 723–732. doi:10.1177/0956797612463582.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  15. Dawson, G., Hill, D., Spencer, A., Galpert, L., & Watson, L. (1990). Affective exchanges between young autistic children and their mothers. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 18(3), 335–345. doi:10.1007/BF00916569.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. Duckworth, K. L., Bargh, J. A., Garcia, M., & Chaiken, S. (2002). The automatic evaluation of novel stimuli. Psychological Science, 13(6), 513–519. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00490.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Ekman, P. (1992). Are there basic emotions? Psychological Review, 99(3), 550–553. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.99.3.550.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Ekman, P. (1993). Facial expression and emotion. American Psychologist, 48(4), 376–379. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.48.4.384.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1975). Unmasking the face: A guide to recognizing emotions from facial cues. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1978). Facial Action Coding System: A technique for the measurement of facial movement. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Ekman, P., Levenson, R. W., & Friesen, W. V. (1983). Autonomic nervous system activity distinguishes among emotions. Science, 221(4616), 1208–1210. doi:10.1126/science.6612338.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  22. Evers, C., Hopp, H., Gross, J. J., Fischer, A. H., Manstead, A. S. R., & Mauss, I. B. (2014). Emotion response coherence: A dual-process perspective. Biological Psychology, 98, 43–49. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2013.11.003.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  23. 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. doi:10.1007/s10803-014-2194-7.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Feng, X., Shaw, D. S., Kovacs, M., Lane, T., O’Rourke, F. E., & Alarcon, H. (2008). Emotion regulation in preschoolers: The roles of behavioral inhibition, maternal affective behavior, and maternal depression. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49(2), 132–141. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01828.x.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  25. Fernandez-Dols, J.-M., Sanchez, F., Carrera, P., & Ruiz-Belda, M.-A. (1997). Are spontaneous expressions and emotions linked? An experimental test of coherence. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21(3), 163–177. doi:10.1023/A:1024917530100.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Friesen, W., & Ekman, P. (1983). EMFACS-7: Emotional Facial Action Coding System. Unpublished manual. California: University of California.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Goldsmith, H. H., & Rothbart, M. K. (1999). Laboratory Temperament Assessment Battery: Locomotor version 3.1. Unpublished manuscript.

  28. Grandey, A. A. (2003). When “the show must go on”: Surface acting and deep acting as determinants of emotional exhaustion and peer-rated service delivery. Academy of Management Journal, 46(1), 86–96. doi:10.2307/30040678.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Griffin, C., Lombardo, M. V., & Auyeung, B. (2015). Alexithymia in children with and without autism spectrum disorders. Autism Research, 1–8. doi:10.1002/aur.1569.

  30. Grolnick, W. S., Bridges, L. J., & Connell, J. P. (1996). Emotion regulation in two-year-olds: Strategies and emotional expression in four contexts. Child Development, 67(3), 928–941. doi:10.2307/1131871.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. Grossman, R. B., Edelson, L. R., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2013). Production of emotional facial and vocal expressions during story retelling by children and adolescents with high-functioning autism. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56(3), 1035–1044. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2012/12-0067).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  32. Grynberg, D., Chang, B., Corneille, O., Maurage, P., Vermeulen, N., Berthoz, S., & Luminet, O. (2012). Alexithymia and the processing of emotional facial expressions (EFEs): Systematic review, unanswered questions and further perspectives. PLoS ONE, 7(8), e42429. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042429.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  33. Guttman, H., & Laporte, L. (2002). Alexithymia, empathy, and psychological symptoms in a family context. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 43(6), 448–455. doi:10.1053/comp.2002.35905.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  34. Helt, M. S., & Fein, D. A. (2016). Facial feedback and social input: Effects of laughter and enjoyment in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(1), 83–94. doi:10.1007/s10803-015-2545-z.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  35. Huang, L., & Galinsky, A. D. (2011). Mind-body dissonance: Conflict between the senses expands the mind’s horizons. Social Psychology and Personality Science, 2(4), 351–359. doi:10.1177/1948550610391677.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Hudenko, W. J., & Magenheimer, M. A. (2012). Listeners prefer the laughs of children with autism to those of typically developing children. Autism, 16(6), 641–655. doi:10.1177/1362361311402856.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  37. Izard, C. E. (1977). Human emotions. New York: Plenum. doi:10.1007/978-1-4899-2209-0.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  38. Izard, C. E. (1990). Facial expressions and the regulation of emotions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(3), 487–498. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.58.3.487.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  39. Izard, C. E., & Malatesta, C. Z. (1987). Perspectives on emotional development: 1. Differential emotions theory of early emotional development. In J. D. Osofsky (Ed.), Handbook of infant development (2nd edn., pp. 494–554). New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  40. John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2004). Healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation: Personality processes, individual differences and life span development. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1301–1333. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2004.00298.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  41. Kanner, L. (1968). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Acta Paedopsychiatrica, 35(4), 100–136.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  42. Kasari, C., Sigman, M., Mundy, P., & Yirmyia, 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. doi:10.1007/BF02206859.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  43. Kätsyri, J., Saalasti, S., Tiippana, K., von Wendt, L., & Sams, M. (2008). Impaired recognition of facial emotions from low-spatial frequencies in Asperger syndrome. Neuropsychologia, 46(7), 1888–1897. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.01.005.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  44. Konstantareas, M. M., & Stewart, K. (2006). Affect regulation and temperament in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(2), 143–154. doi:10.1007/s10803-005-0051-4.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  45. Kraut, R. E., & Johnston, R. E. (1979). Social and emotional messages of smiling: An ethological approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(9), 1539–1553. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.37.9.1539.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Laird, J. D. (1974). Self-attribution of emotion: The effects of expressive behavior on the quality of emotional experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(4), 475–486. doi:10.1037/h0036125.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  47. Lane, R. D., Sechrest, L., Reidel, R., Weldon, V., Kasznial, A., & Schwartz, G. E. (1996). Impaired verbal and nonverbal emotion recognition in alexithymia. Psychosomatic Medicine, 58(3), 203–210. doi:10.1097/00006842-199605000-00002.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  48. Lanzetta, J. T., & Kleck, R. E. (1970). Encoding and decoding of nonverbal affect in humans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16(1), 12–19. doi:10.1037/h0029850.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Legiša, J., Messinger, D. S., Kermol, E., & Marlier, L. (2013). Emotional responses to odors in children with high-functioning autism: Autonomic arousal, facial behavior and self-report. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(4), 869–879. doi:10.1007/s10803-012-1629-2.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  51. Levenson, R. W. (1994). Human emotion: A functional view. In P. Ekman, &amp, J. R & Davidson (Eds.), The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions (pp. 123–126). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Malatesta, C. Z. (1981). Infant emotions and the vocal affect lexicon. Motivation and Emotion, 5(1), 1–23. doi:10.1007/BF00993658.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Malatesta, C. Z., Clayton, C., Tesman, J. R., Shepard, B., Fogel, A., Reimers, M., & Zivin, G. (1989). The development of emotion expression during the first two years of life. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 54(1–2), 1–136. doi:10.2307/1166153.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  54. Mauss, I. B., Levenson, R. W., McCarter, L., Wilhelm, F. H., & Gross, J. J. (2005). The tie that binds? Coherence among emotion experience, behavior, and physiology. Emotion (Washington, D. C.), 5(2), 175–190. doi:10.1037/1528-3542.5.2.175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. McGee, G. G., Feldman, R. S., & Chernin, L. (1991). A comparison of emotional facial display by children with autism and typical preschoolers. Journal of Early Intervention, 15(3), 237–245. doi:10.1177/105381519101500303.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Nemiah, J. C., Freyberger, H., & Sifneos, P. E. (1976). Alexithymia: A view of the psychosomatic process. In O. W. Hill (Ed.), Modern trends in psychosomatic medicine (pp. 430–439). London: Butterworths.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Niedenthal, P. M. (2007). Embodying emotion. Science, 316(5827), 1002–1005. doi:10.1126/science.1136930.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  58. Nuske, H. J., Vivanti, G., & Dissanayake, C. (2013). Are emotion impairments unique to, universal, or specific in autism spectrum disorder? A comprehensive review. Cognition and Emotion, 27(6), 1042–1061. doi:10.1080/02699931.2012.762900.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  59. Parker, J. D. A., Taylor, G. J., & Bagby, R. M. (1993). Alexithymia and the recognition of facial expressions of emotion. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 59(3–4), 197–202. doi:10.1159/000288664.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  60. Prkachin, G. L., Casey, C., & Prkachin, K. M. (2009). Alexithymia and perception of facial expressions of emotion. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(4), 412–417. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2008.11.010.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Rieffe, C., Meerum Terwogt, M., & Kotronopoulou, C. (2007). Awareness of single and multiple emotions in high-functioning children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37(3), 455–465. doi:10.1007/s10803-006-0171-5.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  62. Rieffe, C., Oosterveld, P., & Meerum Terwogt, M. (2006). An alexithymia questionnaire for children: Factorial and concurrent validation results. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(1), 123–133. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2005.05.013.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Rosenberg, E. L., & Ekman, P. (1994). Coherence between expressive and experiential systems in emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 8(3), 201–229. doi:10.1080/02699939408408938.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Samson, A. C., Huber, O., & Gross, J. J. (2012). Emotion regulation in Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism. Emotion (Washington, D. C.), 12(4), 659–665. doi:10.1037/a0027975.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Sendzik, L., Schäfer, J. Ö., Samson, A. C., Naumann, E., & Tuschen-Caffier, B. (2017). Emotional awareness in depressive and anxiety symptoms in youth: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. doi:10.1007/s10964-017-0629-0.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  66. Sifneos, P. E. (1973). The prevalence of ‘alexithymic’ characteristics in psychosomatic patients. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 22(2), 255–262. doi:10.1159/000286529.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  67. Stepper, S., & Strack, F. (1993). Proprioceptive determinants of emotional and nonemotional feelings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(2), 211–220. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.64.2.211.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Sze, J. A., Gyurak, A., Yuan, J. W., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). Coherence between emotional experience and physiology: Does body awareness training have an impact? Emotion (Washington, D. C.), 10(6), 803–814. doi:10.1037/a0020146.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Taylor, G. J., Bagby, R. M., & Parker, D. A. (1997). Disorders of Affect Regulation. Alexithymia in Medical and Psychiatric Illness. New York: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511526831.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  70. Tomkins, S. S. (1962). Affect, imagery, consciousness: I. The positive affects. Oxford: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Volker, M. A., Lopata, C., Smith, D. A., & Thomeer, M. L. (2009). Facial encoding of children with high-function autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 24(4), 195–204. doi:10.1177/1088357609347325.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Weinberg, M. K., & Tronik, E. Z. (1994). Beyond the face: An empirical study of infant affective configurations of facial, vocal, gestural, and regulatory behaviors. Child Development, 65(5), 1503–1515. doi:10.2307/1131514.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  73. Weiss, E. M., Gschaidbauer, B. C., Samson, A. C., Steinbäcker, K., Fink, A., & Papousek, I. (2013). From Ice Age to Madagascar: Appreciation of slapstick humor in children with Asperger’s syndrome. Humor, 26(3), 423–440. doi:10.1515/humor-2013-0029.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. 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. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1989.tb00785.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

This manuscript has not been previously published and is not under consideration in the same or substantially similar form in any other journal. This manuscript is part of a series of manuscripts describing the major findings of a study in emotional reactivity and emotion regulation in children with ASD. Although the different manuscripts will be based on the same dataset, research questions and analyses will be substantially different.

Author Contributions

APC conceived of the study, participated in its design and coordination of the study, performed the measurements, participated in the analysis and interpretation of data, and drafted the manuscript; GS participated in the conception and design of the study, interpretation of the data, and in revising the manuscript; ACS participated in the analysis and interpretation of data and in revising the manuscript critically for important intellectual content. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andreia P. Costa.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

Andreia P. Costa declares that she has no conflict of interest. Georges Steffgen declares that he has no conflict of interest. Andrea C. Samson declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 31 KB)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Costa, A.P., Steffgen, G. & Samson, A.C. Expressive Incoherence and Alexithymia in Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 47, 1659–1672 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3073-9

Download citation

Keywords

  • Emotional response incoherence
  • Expressive incoherence
  • Alexithymia
  • Autism spectrum disorder