Empathy and face processing in adults with and without autism spectrum disorder

Sarah N Rigby, Brenda M Stoesz, Lorna S Jakobson
Autism Research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research 2018, 11 (6): 942-955

Many factors contribute to social difficulties in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The goal of the present work was to determine whether atypicalities in how individuals with ASD process static, socially engaging faces persist when nonrigid facial motion cues are present. We also sought to explore the relationships between various face processing abilities and individual differences in autism symptom severity and traits such as empathy. Participants included 16 adults with ASD without intellectual impairment and 16 sex- and age-matched controls. Mean Verbal IQ was comparable across groups [t(30) = 0.70, P = 0.49]. The two groups responded similarly to many of the experimental manipulations; however, relative to controls, participants with ASD responded more slowly to dynamic expressive faces, even when no judgment was required; were less accurate at identity matching with static and dynamic faces; and needed more time to make identity and expression judgments [F(1, 30) ≥ 6.37, P ≤ 0.017, ηp 2  ≥ 0.175 in all cases], particularly when the faces were moving [F(1, 30) = 3.40, P = 0.072, ηp 2  = 0.104]. In the full sample, as social autistic traits increased and empathic skills declined, participants needed more time to judge static identity, and static or dynamic expressions [0.43 < |rs | < 0.56]. The results suggest that adults with ASD show general impairments in face and motion processing and support the view that an examination of individual variation in particular personality traits and abilities is important for advancing our understanding of face perception. Autism Res 2018, 11: 942-955. © 2018 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

LAY SUMMARY: Our findings suggest that people with ASD have problems processing expressive faces, especially when seen in motion. It is important to learn who is most at risk for face processing problems, given that in the general population such problems appear to be linked to impaired social skills and empathy. By studying relationships between different abilities and traits, we may be able to find better ways to diagnose and support all people on the autism spectrum.

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