JOURNAL ARTICLE

Effect of familiarity on reward anticipation in children with and without autism spectrum disorders

Katherine K M Stavropoulos, Leslie J Carver
PloS One 2014, 9 (9): e106667
25184524

BACKGROUND: Previous research on the reward system in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) suggests that children with ASD anticipate and process social rewards differently than typically developing (TD) children--but has focused on the reward value of unfamiliar face stimuli. Children with ASD process faces differently than their TD peers. Previous research has focused on face processing of unfamiliar faces, but less is known about how children with ASD process familiar faces. The current study investigated how children with ASD anticipate rewards accompanied by familiar versus unfamiliar faces.

METHODS: The stimulus preceding negativity (SPN) of the event-related potential (ERP) was utilized to measure reward anticipation. Participants were 6- to 10-year-olds with (N = 14) and without (N = 14) ASD. Children were presented with rewards accompanied by incidental face or non-face stimuli that were either familiar (caregivers) or unfamiliar. All non-face stimuli were composed of scrambled face elements in the shape of arrows, controlling for visual properties.

RESULTS: No significant differences between familiar versus unfamiliar faces were found for either group. When collapsing across familiarity, TD children showed larger reward anticipation to face versus non-face stimuli, whereas children with ASD did not show differential responses to these stimulus types. Magnitude of reward anticipation to faces was significantly correlated with behavioral measures of social impairment in the ASD group.

CONCLUSIONS: The findings do not provide evidence for differential reward anticipation for familiar versus unfamiliar face stimuli in children with or without ASD. These findings replicate previous work suggesting that TD children anticipate rewards accompanied by social stimuli more than rewards accompanied by non-social stimuli. The results do not support the idea that familiarity normalizes reward anticipation in children with ASD. Our findings also suggest that magnitude of reward anticipation to faces is correlated with levels of social impairment for children with ASD.

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