Affective Flexibility during the Self-Referenced Memory Task: A Novel Analytic Approach

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
C. A. Burrows1, S. Sun2, L. V. Usher1, J. C. Britton2 and H. A. Henderson3, (1)University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, (2)Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL, (3)University of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON, Canada
Background:   Individuals with high-functioning autism (HFA) demonstrate difficulties in several domains, including cognitive flexibility, emotion understanding and self-referenced processing, which have been linked to maladaptive outcomes. However, little research has examined affective flexibility, or the ability to switch between information of emotional content, in HFA. The valence of information (positive versus negative) and processing condition (thinking about oneself or another person) are two factors that may influence affective flexibility in individuals with HFA.  

Objectives:   The goals of this study were to examine the effect of switching between adjective valence and condition on behavioral measures of affective flexibility in children and adolescents with HFA and a matched comparison sample (COM) on a self-referenced memory task.

Methods:   Children and adolescents with HFA (N=76, 65 males, Mage=12.51, SD=2.58) and a comparison sample (N=72, 52 males, Mage=13.28, SD=2.15) completed a self-referenced memory paradigm, where they judged both positive and negative traits with reference to themselves or a familiar other person (e.g., Harry Potter). Switch cost was computed as the reaction time (ms) difference between switch-trials (trials that differed in valence from previous trials) and non-switch trials (trials that had the same valence as previous trials). The difference score was computed for positive-negative (P-N) and negative-positive (N-P) switches in the self and other conditions. 

Results:   Mean switch cost values for each group and condition are presented in Table 1. A Group (HFA, TD) x Condition (Self, Other) x Switch type (P-N, N-P) repeated-measures ANCOVA was conducted on the switch cost data, controlling for verbal IQ and gender. Overall, there was a main effect of switch, F(1,146)=8.55, p=.004, with a greater slowing in reaction times in the positive-negative switches than in negative-positive switches. A three-way interaction also emerged, F(1,146)=4.01, p=.047, indicating that the differential switch-cost by condition and type differed by group. Follow-up analyses revealed that the group effect was specific to the difference between self and other P-N switches, F(1,147)=4.46, p=.036. Reaction times of participants with HFA were particularly affected by switching from positive- to negatively-valenced adjectives in self relative to other condition. 

Conclusions:   This study is the first to examine elements of affective flexibility using a self-referenced processing task. All participants found it easier to process positive information. However, the reaction time cost was accentuated when children with HFA were required to think of switch between positive and negative self-referenced information, relative to thinking of another person. It may be more effortful for them to evaluate negative self-referential information, indexing affective inflexibility. These impairments could account for different patterns of comorbidity in children with HFA.