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Recognition and Expression of Emotions in Autism: Clinical Significance and Hierarchy of Difficulties Perceived by Parents and Experts

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
D. Lundqvist1, S. Berggren1, H. O'Reilly2, S. Fridenson3, S. Tal3, S. Newman4, O. Golan5, S. Baron-Cohen2 and S. Bölte1, (1)Department of Women's and Children's Health, Center of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (KIND), Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, (2)Autism Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, (3)Department of Psychology, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel, (4)Compedia Ltd, Ramat-Gan, Israel, (5)Department of Psychology, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel

The recognition and expression of emotions is a challenge for children with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC). Thus, early training in these skills is important in order to achieve social inclusion. Within an EC-FP7-financed project (“ASC inclusion”,, European partners are collaborating around the development of a computerized training tool for socio-emotional skills in children with ASC aged 5 to 10 years.


Children with ASC will learn when and how to recognize and express 20 different emotions (Afraid, Angry, Ashamed, Bored, Disappointed, Disgusted, Excited, Frustrated, Happy, Hurt, Interested, Jealous, Joking, Kind, Proud, Sad, Sneaky, Surprised, Unfriendly, Worried). The objective of this study was to explore and validate the choice of emotions using parent and expert ratings in different cultures.


Three different surveys (S1, S2, S3) were run each in Sweden, the U.K. and Israel. [S1] assessed the perceived similarities and differences between the selected emotions in N= 716 typical adults. [S2] assessed the importance of the emotions and the degree of difficulty of these emotions in ASC judged by N = 88 parents of  children with ASC aged 5 to 10 years. [S3] assessed the same issues as S2 but as judged by 47 ASC clinicians. Data from S1 was compiled to a similarity matrix and subjected to multi-dimensional scaling analyses (MDS), with the purpose of mapping between-emotion similarities, and to extract underlying emotional dimensions. In both S2 and S3, the relation between ratings of importance and difficulty was analysed. Likewise parents and experts ratings were compared. Data from S2 and S3 were related to the underlying dimensions of S1.


The selected 20 emotions rely on three main underlying dimensions; closely resembling Wundt's classical dimensions of valence, arousal and dominance. There was a close relationship between ratings on difficulty and clinical significance well as between parents’ and experts’ ratings. Emotions rated as easy by both parents and experts were also rated as of high significance, and vice versa (r≈.70; r2≈.50). The difficulty ratings of parents and experts were related to the emotional dimension of valence, demonstrating that, in particular for older children (aged 8 to 10 years) with a lower functioning level, negative emotions are more difficult to master than positive emotions.


Results show that parents and experts strongly agree with regards to how they judge the difficulty and significance of emotional states for ASC children. The relationship between these ratings and an underlying valence dimension confirm earlier data showing larger difficulties with negatively than positively valenced emotions in ASC. Findings are valuable to validate the choice of emotions that will be taught to in ASC and will be applied to the development and sequencing of emotion tutorials for the ASC-Inclusion online training platform.

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