Enhanced Salience and Emotion Recognition in Autism: A PET Study Hall
Geoffrey B.C. PhD, Szechtman, Henry Ph.D., Nahmias, Claude PhD, American Journal Psychiatry, Volume 160 (8), August 2003, Pages 1439 - 1441.
This study examined neural activation of facial stimuli in autism when the salience of emotional cues was increased by prosodic information. Regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) was measured while eight high-functioning men with autism and eight men without autism performed an emotion-recognition task in which facial emotion stimuli were matched with prosodic voices and a baseline gender-recognition task.
Emotion processing in autistic subjects, compared to that in comparison subjects, resulted in lower rCBF in the inferior frontal and fusiform areas and higher rCBF in the right anterior temporal pole, the anterior cingulate, and the thalamus. Even with the enhanced emotional salience of facial stimuli, adults with autism showed lower activity in the fusiform cortex and differed from the comparison subjects in activation of other brain regions. The authors suggested that the recognition of emotion by adults with autism is achieved through recruitment of brain regions concerned with allocation of attention, sensory gating, the referencing of perceptual knowledge, and categorization.
Understanding Embarressment Among Those with Autism: Breaking Down the Complex Emotion of Embarrassment Among Those with Autism
Hillier A and Allinson, L Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders Vol 32, 2002, Pages 583-592.
Scenarios manipulating various factors within the emotion of embarrassment, such as weather or not an audience was present when an embarrassing act was committed, the type of audience present, empathetic embarrassment, etc., were presented to high-functioning participants with autism and comparison groups of those with learning difficulties and typically developing participants matched for verbal and non-verbal mental age. Participants were required to rate the level of embarrassment of the protagonist and justify their responses. It was predicted that those with autism would differ significantly from the comparison groups in their ratings and also their ability to provide justifications. The results showed those with autism to have difficulty with such concepts as empathetic embarrassment but showed a surprisingly good understanding of other variables manipulated such as the presence of an audience.
Understanding Atypical Emotions Among Children with Autism
By Rieffe, C., Terwogt, M.M, and Stockmann, L., (2000), Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 30, No. 3.
Children with autism are said to be poor mind readers: They have a limited understanding of the role that mental states play in determining emotions and behaviour. In this research, 23 high-functioning children from the autistic spectrum (M age 9 years 3 months), 42 6-year-old controls, and 43 10-year-old controls were presented with six emotion-evoking stories and they were asked to explain protagonists’ typical and atypical emotions. In the case of typical emotions, as expected on the basis of the mindblind hypothesis, children from the autistic spectrum gave few mental state explanations, referring to fewer than even the 6-year-old control group. However, in the case of atypical emotions, the autistic group performed as well as the 10-year-old controls.
It is argued that the mind-reading capacity of high-functioning children from the autistic spectrum might be basically intact; unused in everyday circumstances but not necessarily defective.
Mindblindness implies that children live in a world in which mental activities, such as dreaming, hoping, thinking, and wanting, are not recognised and play no role. Consequently, they also lack the ability to attribute mental states to others.
Twenty-three children in residential care with a pervasive disorder from the autistic spectrum participated in this study. Based on the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) criteria, the group consisted of 2 children with autism, 3 with the Asperger syndrome, and 18 children were diagnosed with PDDNOS. Of these 18 children, 6 were diagnosed with MCDD.
Earlier findings showed that children form the autistic spectrum sometimes explain other people’s emotions in terms of desires but rarely in terms of beliefs. Our research confirms this finding with regard to typical emotions, but not with regard to atypical emotions. In the case of typical emotions (happiness on receiving a present), our autistic participants with a mean age of 9 years attributed even fewer mental states (desires and beliefs) than a much younger control group of 6-year-olds. However, in the case of atypical emotions (e.g., anger on receiving a present), the clinical group performed as well as a 10-year-old control group of normally developing children.
Overall, we may conclude that our data demonstrate that children from the autistic spectrum do have a mind reading capacity, but they simply do not apply this spontaneously to the same extent as normally developing children.
The question is why, if they have the capacity to mind read, children from the autistic spectrum, hardly seems to apply this capacity. Do they not understand spontaneously that mind reading can help them in their contact with others in everyday life? Or do they not appreciate the advantage of mind reading? When we observe high-functioning children from the autistic spectrum in their daily life, many (but not all) appeared to lack curiousity for others, unless they have a direct need to obtain something from another person.
The idea that the level of stress plays a crucial role in their daily functioning would also explain, for example, why many children with autism - also high-functioning children- can be observed to intensify their repetitive behaviour or self-stimulation and close off their interactions with others even more in times of pressure. It seems as if the extent to which they tolerate external information is related to the level of tranquillity of the situation. The hypothesis that children from the autistic spectrum only have room to mind read when their level of stress is reduced is recognisable for many of us: Don’t most people totally lose their interest in others the moment they are severely bothered by their own problems?
Motion and Emotion: A Novel Approach to the Study of Face Processing by Young Autistic Children
The specificity of facial processing impairment in autistic children, particularly in the domain of emotion, is still debated. The aim of our study was to assess the influence of motion on facial expression recognition in young autistic children. Results indicate that children with autism do not perform significantly worse than their controls in any of our experimental conditions. Compared to previous studies showing lower performance in autistic than in control children when presented with static faces, our data suggest that slow dynamic presentations facilitate facial expression recognition by autistic children. This result could be of interest to parents and specialists involved in education and reeducation of these children.
Emotions Without Feelings
Letter to the editor, autism, (2000) 4, 205-206 by Dorit Ben Shalom, Israel.
LeDoux (1996) distinguishes between two types of neural systems for affective behavior. One is a subcortical system that mediates emotions. He attributes this system to the amygdaloid complex. The other is a subcortical-cortical system that mediates conscious feelings.
LeDoux defines feelings as the products of the subcortical-cortical system, which coordinates communication between the subcortical system and the cortex.
In terms of LeDoux's distinction between emotions and feelings, it might be hypothesized that people with autism have relatively intact emotions, but impaired feelings.
One possibility is that some people with higher-functioning autism (high-function autism or Asperger syndrome) may be able to restore subcortical-cortical communication by cortically reasoning about subcortical emotions. For example, they might be able to label some of their emotions based on observable behavior and physical responses. More generally, they might be able to use a cognitive strategy of empathy involving a logical simulation of some inner states of themselves and others.
From a biological point of view, assume that autism may involve a mis-communication between the amygdaloid complex and the cortex.