International Meeting for Autism Research: Can Adolescents with Autism Rapidly Infer Mental States From Faces?

Can Adolescents with Autism Rapidly Infer Mental States From Faces?

Saturday, May 14, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
9:00 AM
E. Back1, K. Ramdhonee2 and I. Apperly3, (1)Department of Psychology, Kingston University London, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, United Kingdom, (2)Kingston University London, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, United Kingdom, (3)University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Background: Recent research has suggested that individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) can infer mental states accurately from dynamic faces and they especially rely on the eyes (Back et al., 2007). Given sufficient time, participants with ASC can infer mental states but in our everyday social interactions we need to respond quickly as well as accurately.

Objectives: This study investigates whether individuals with ASC can rapidly infer mental states from faces using an online task. It was predicted that participants with ASC will be just as accurate as participants without ASC when inferring mental states but they will be generally slower in processing the correct response. Moreover, if participants with ASC rely on the eyes to infer mental states then this will result in slower response times when information from the eyes is not available.

Methods: 21 adolescents with ASC aged between 12 and 16 were individually matched on chronological age, gender and full-scale IQ to 21 typically developing adolescents. On each trial, a mental state cue word was presented, followed by a video clip of a face depicting a mental state that is either congruent or incongruent with the word. Participants were encouraged to respond as quickly and accurately as possible (at any time during or after the video clip) to judge whether the face was congruent with the mental state term. Eight mental states (deciding, disapproving, don’t trust, not interested, not sure, relieved, surprised and worried), were presented six times (three trials when the word correctly corresponded to the face and three trials when the word incorrectly corresponded to the face) in three different display types (the whole dynamic face, eyes frozen and mouth frozen). In the frozen conditions, a particular facial region remained static and neutral whilst the rest of the face was dynamic and expressive.

Results: A trend was found that adolescents with ASC were slower than controls at inferring mental states from faces even though they had similar levels of accuracy. There was an effect of display type where adolescents were significantly slower at inferring mental states when both the eyes and mouth were frozen compared to the whole dynamic face. Interestingly, when investigating the ASC group independently, they were significantly slower to respond to only the eyes frozen condition compared to the whole dynamic face. This indicates that individuals with ASC responded faster to mental states when eye information was present.

Conclusions: Findings suggest that adolescents with ASC need more time to process mental states from facial expressions and this could explain some of their difficulties with social interactions. However, they are able to make speeded interpretations of mental states when eye information is available which supports the premise that individuals with autism can effectively process information from the eyes.

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