Adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may have difficulty understanding other people’s emotions because they do not use contextual clues, a new study suggests.

The study, by Steven Stagg and colleagues, compared 20 teenagers with ASD to 20 neurotypical teens. All participants were between 13 and 15 years of age.

In the first part of the experiment, the groups viewed photos of people displaying static emotions (fear, anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, and surprise). The teens with ASD and the neurotypical controls identified the emotions in the images equally well.

In the second part of the experiment, the groups watched six short videos. In the first part of each video, a main character displayed an emotion that matched the context of the scene. Later in each video, the character displayed a feigned emotion masking his
or her true feelings.

For example, one video showed an individual buying a cup of coffee and then being bumped into by another individual, making him spill his coffee. The main character first appeared angry, but after receiving an apology, he displayed a forced smile. The researchers found that while the teens did not differ in their ability to identify the emotions being displayed on the faces of the characters in the videos, those with ASD could not correctly identify how the characters actually felt. For example, they identified the feigned smile of the man in the coffee video as happiness.

Stagg comments, “Our findings suggest that children with autism may misjudge the feelings of others due to an over-reliance on facial cues to the detriment of contextual cues, rather than an inability to recognize facial emotion. In fact, we found that children with autism are just as capable as their typically developing peers at recognizing static images of facial emotion. However, in everyday life facial expressions are not presented in a vacuum. People commonly attempt to hide their feelings, and therefore accurate recognition of emotion involves processing both facial expressions and contextual cues.

In this study, he says, “the children with autism struggled when asked to describe how the actors were feeling. We believe this is because these children have difficulties integrating the narrative with the facial expressions, and instead their judgments are guided only by the visible emotion on display. In part, this may be due to the higher cognitive demand that more complex stimuli, such as context, place on processing capacity.”

“Emotion recognition and context in adolescents with autism spectrum disorder,” Steven Stagg, Li-Huan Tan, and Fathima Kodakkadan, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, October 7, 2021 (epub prior to print publication). Address: Steven Stagg, Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge, CB1 PT1, UK, [email protected]

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“Autistic children struggle with hidden emotions,” news release, Anglia Ruskin University, October 8, 2021.

This article originally appeared in Autism Research Review International, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2021