Reward learning modulates the attentional processing of faces in children with and without autism spectrum disorder

Tianbi Li, Xueqin Wang, Junhao Pan, Shuyuan Feng, Mengyuan Gong, Yaxue Wu, Guoxiang Li, Sheng Li, Li Yi
Autism Research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research 2017, 10 (11): 1797-1807

The processing of social stimuli, such as human faces, is impaired in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which could be accounted for by their lack of social motivation. The current study examined how the attentional processing of faces in children with ASD could be modulated by the learning of face-reward associations. Sixteen high-functioning children with ASD and 20 age- and ability-matched typically developing peers participated in the experiments. All children started with a reward learning task, in which the children were presented with three female faces that were attributed with positive, negative, and neutral values, and were required to remember the faces and their associated values. After this, they were tested on the recognition of the learned faces and a visual search task in which the learned faces served as the distractor. We found a modulatory effect of the face-reward associations on the visual search but not the recognition performance in both groups despite the lower efficacy among children with ASD in learning the face-reward associations. Specifically, both groups responded faster when one of the distractor faces was associated with positive or negative values than when the distractor face was neutral, suggesting an efficient attentional processing of these reward-associated faces. Our findings provide direct evidence for the perceptual-level modulatory effect of reward learning on the attentional processing of faces in individuals with ASD. Autism Res 2017, 10: 1797-1807. © 2017 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

LAY SUMMARY: In our study, we tested whether the face processing of individuals with ASD could be changed when the faces were associated with different social meanings. We found no effect of social meanings on face recognition, but both groups responded faster in the visual search task when one of the distractor faces was associated with positive or negative values than when the neutral face. The findings suggest that children with ASD could efficiently process faces associated with different values like typical children.

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