Background: The ability to discriminate and recognise facially expressed emotions has been studied extensively in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Less research, however, has been conducted on individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Although emotion recognition deficits have been observed in both clinical populations, few studies have compared individuals with autism and ADHD or considered whether the co-occurrence of ASD traits in ADHD may be relevant.
Objectives: To compare the extent of potential facial affect recognition deficits in individuals with autism and/or ADHD, questioning whether emotion recognition deficits are specific to autism.
Methods: To date, 102 male children and adolescents between the ages of 7 and 16, with an IQ>70, have taken part in the study. Included were individuals who, according to the DSM-IV, fulfilled the diagnosis of an ADHD (n=39) or an autistic disorder (Asperger syndrome, high functioning autism and atypical autism) with (n=18) and without (n=28) comorbid ADHD symptoms and a typically developing group (n=19). Facial affect recognition was assessed using labeling and same/different discrimination computer tasks, with negative emotions (sad, angry, fear, disgust) from the Facial Expression of Emotion: Stimuli and Tests (FEEST) at three different intensities (25%. 50%, 75%).
Results: A significant main effect of diagnostic classification was found for percentage correct on the labelling task (F3,100=3.20, p<0.05). Bonferroni corrected post hoc pairwise comparisons revealed a significant difference in performance for ASD vs control (p<0.05), ADHD vs control (p<0.05) and a non-significant tendency for comorbid vs control (p=0.086). No significant group differences were revealed on the discrimination task and no overall group effects were found on either the labelling or discrimination task when covarying for PIQ, VIQ, SCQ, or Conners. However, when performance on the labelling task was predicted a significant model emerged ((F3,97)=9.07, p<0.01, Adjusted R2 =0.19) with VIQ as a significant predictor (β = 0.37, p<0.001). Conners and SCQ scores were not a significant predictor of performance with β=-0.13 and β=-0.07, respectively (p>0.05).
Conclusions: Preliminary results indicate that typically developing individuals were significantly better able to label emotions than were children with ASD and ADHD. However, differences between groups on the discrimination task, which has a low verbal demand, were non significant. Pairwise comparisons revealed that differences in performance of ASD and ADHD individuals were related to inattention, hyperactivity and autistic symptomatology. Furthermore, group differences on the labelling task disappeared when VIQ scores were covaried. Overall, the results show that emotion labelling deficits are not specific to ASD, but reflect the verbal demands of an emotion labelling task.
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