Communication deficits and avoidance of angry faces in children with autism spectrum disorder

Ana García-Blanco, Concepción López-Soler, Máximo Vento, María Carmen García-Blanco, Belén Gago, Manuel Perea
Research in Developmental Disabilities 2017, 62: 218-226

BACKGROUND: Understanding how emotional faces are processed is important to help characterize the social deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

AIMS: We examined: (i) whether attention is modulated by emotional facial expression; (ii) the time course of the attentional preferences (short vs. long stimulus presentation rates); and (iii) the association between attentional biases and autistic symptomatology.

METHOD AND PROCEDURES: We applied a dot-probe experiment with emotional faces (happy, sad, and angry). The sample was composed of ASD children without additional language and/or intellectual impairments (n=29) and age-matched Typically Developing (TD) children (n=29).

OUTCOMES AND RESULTS: When compared to the TD group, the ASD group showed an attentional bias away from angry faces at long presentation rates. No differences between groups were found for happy or sad faces. Furthermore, correlational analyses showed that the higher avoidance of angry faces, the greater are the social communication difficulties of ASD children. The attentional bias away from angry faces may be an underlying mechanism of social dysfunction in ASD. We discuss the implications of these findings for current theories of emotional processing in ASD.

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