Young Autistic Children in a Stimulating Play Situation: Nature and Frequency of Emotions
Kanner originally described unusual facial expressions in autistic children (Kanner, 1943). Since then, autism research has emphasized neutral, negative, and/or awkward affect in autistic children, at the expense of positive emotions (Capps et al. 1995; Grossman et al. 2013; MacDonald et al, 1989; Snow et al. 1987; Yirmiya et al. 1989). While typical children show increased positive affect when they are exposed to personal interests (Silvia, 2006; Chen et al. 2001), most studies assessing autistic children’s emotions use pictures and videos in laboratory situations or standardized diagnostic assessments, and thus feature limited availability of autistic materials of interest. Current understanding of autistic children’s positive emotions may therefore be inadequate and their frequency underestimated.
To document the nature and frequency of emotions expressed by young autistic children, as manifested during a semi-standardized play situation involving exposure to their potential materials of interest.
The final sample included 20 autistic and 20 typical children aged between 18 and 72 months. Participants were recruited through the Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies clinical database and exposed to the Montréal Stimulating Play Situation-Revised (MSPS; Jacques et al., submitted). MSPS-R includes two sessions of free play, one of semi-free play, and one of semi-structured play, for a total period of 30 minutes. Forty objects (e.g.: letters and numbers, books, dictionary, cars, airplane, i-Pad, calendar, music box, dinosaurs, bubble gun) are freely accessed by children under the guidance of an adult. MSPS-R sessions were DVD recorded and coded (Noldus Observer) by two naive raters. Coding is based on the Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors Repertoire-Revised (Jacques et al., submitted) which is comprised of five subscales (sessions, objects, emotions, physical contact, and behavior). Emotions are coded as positive, negative, neutral, and unknown in relation to the exploration of the forty objects available to children in the MSPS-R.
Results already analyzed, based on 10 autistic children (mean age: 49.7 months, SD 13.0; mean MSEL: 61.3, SD 14.4) and 5 typical children matched on chronologic age (mean age 44.4, SD 16.6, p=0,35; mean MSEL 114.3, SD 16.9, p<0.01), indicate that autistic children expressed a similar number of positive emotions (mean frequency: 15.4, SD 16.5) as did typical children (mean frequency: 12.4, SD 5.7; p=0.7). Emotions coded as negative or unknown were infrequent in both groups (typical children: 0; autistic children: negative mean frequency 1.8, SD 2.9; unknown mean frequency 0.4, SD 0.5).
If these results are confirmed in the full sample, they would indicate that when potential materials of interest are available to explore, young autistic children express a similar high frequency of positive emotions, and very low frequency of negative emotions, as do age-matched typical children. Thus, young autistic children, even with relatively low MSEL scores, may competently regulate their emotions when given access to information that autistics process well. The next step of this study will be documenting which objects trigger which emotions, and which behaviors are associated with positive and/or negative emotions, in each group.