Reward anticipation and processing of social versus nonsocial stimuli in children with and without autism spectrum disorders

Katherine K M Stavropoulos, Leslie J Carver
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines 2014, 55 (12): 1398-408

BACKGROUND: How children respond to social and nonsocial rewards has important implications for both typical and atypical social-cognitive development. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are thought to process rewards differently than typically developing (TD) individuals. However, there is little direct evidence to support this claim.

METHODS: Two event-related potentials were measured. The stimulus preceding negativity (SPN) was utilized to measure reward anticipation, and the feedback related negativity (FRN) was utilized to measure reward processing. Participants were 6- to 8-year-olds with (N = 20) and without (N = 23) ASD. Children were presented with rewards accompanied by incidental face or nonface stimuli. Nonface stimuli were composed of scrambled face elements in the shape of arrows, controlling for low-level visual properties.

RESULTS: Children with ASD showed smaller responses while anticipating and processing rewards accompanied by social stimuli than TD children. Anticipation and processing of rewards accompanied by nonsocial stimuli was intact in children with ASD.

CONCLUSIONS: This is the first study to measure both reward anticipation and processing in ASD while controlling for reward properties. The findings provide evidence that children with autism have reward anticipation and processing deficits for social stimuli only. Our results suggest that while typically developing children find social stimuli more salient than nonsocial stimuli, children with ASD may have the opposite preference.

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