Metacognitive Awareness of Facial and Vocal Affect in Higher-Functioning Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Metacognition is one’s ability to monitor and assess one’s own task performance (e.g., Jacobs & Paris, 1987). Two previous studies (McMahon et al., 2015; Sawyer et al., 2014) have examined metacognition of facial affect identification in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In McMahon et al. (2015), children and adolescents with ASD were impaired in metacognition relative to a comparison group; in Sawyer et al. (2014), adults with ASD did not show evidence of a metacognitive impairment, although a mild impairment in metacognitive control was observed.
The objective of this study was to assess metacognition of facial and vocal affect in children and adolescents with ASD. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to examine metacognition of vocal affect in individuals with ASD.
Children and adolescents (ages 9-17) with typical development (n = 10) and ASD (n = 14) participated in this study. There were no significant differences between diagnostic groups on age, t(22) = -1.20, p = 0.24, verbal IQ, t(22) = 1.74, p = 0.10, performance IQ, t(22) = 1.29, p = 0.21, or gender, χ² (1, N = 24) = 0.97, p = 0.32. Participants completed the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy 2 (Baum & Nowicki, 1997; Nowicki & Carlton, 1993); they were asked to determine the affect of 24 faces and 24 voices and indicate their degree of certainty (1 = very uncertain, 5 = very certain) for each affect selection. A hierarchical linear model was used to analyze the data, with degree of certainty and stimulus type (face/voice) assessed as stimulus-level predictors of affect accuracy and diagnosis, age, verbal IQ, and gender assessed as participant-level predictors of affect accuracy.
There was a significant effect of age, t(22) = 2.57, p = 0.02, and certainty, t(1125) = 9.02, p < 0.01, on accuracy of affect selection, such that older participants were more accurate in their affect selections and greater certainty in affect selection was associated with greater accuracy across all participants, regardless of diagnostic group. Finally, there was a marginal effect of stimulus type on accuracy of affect selection, t(1125) = -1.86, p = 0.06, which was qualified by an interaction between stimulus type and diagnostic group, t(1125) = -2.15, p = 0.03, such that all participants, particularly those with ASD, were more accurate in processing facial affect than vocal affect (see Table 1 and Figure 1).
Contrary to the results of McMahon et al. (2015), this study suggests that children and adolescents with ASD do not have metacognitive impairments in monitoring facial or vocal affect. As the face processing task used in this study was simpler than the face processing task used in McMahon et al. (2015), individuals with ASD may have greater metacognitive impairments on more difficult affective processing tasks. Individuals with ASD had more difficulty identifying vocal affect than facial affect in this study, suggesting that future studies should explore the relation between metacognition and task difficulty for both facial and vocal affect identification tasks.