Emotional Effects of Ostracism in ASD: A Physiological Approach

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
E. Trimmer1, S. McDonald2, D. Mathersul3 and J. A. Rushby4, (1)University of New South Wales, Potts Point, NSW, Australia, (2)Psychology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, (3)University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, (4)University of New South Wales, UNSW, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Background:  Social exclusion or ostracism is experienced by most people at some point in their lives. This is even greater for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Individuals with ASD experience difficulties making and maintaining friendships as well as difficulties with social communication, often leading to feelings of isolation and social exclusion. Very little research has examined the perceptions and emotional experience of individuals with ASD when they are being ostracized.

Objectives:  This study aims to explore the emotional and psychophysiological responses to ostracism in individuals with ASD.

Methods:   Twenty-five individuals aged 16 or older (21 males; mean age 27 years) with a diagnosis of ASD and twenty-six matched controls (21 males, mean age 26) participated in an online game of ball tossing, Cyberball. Each participant played two games, both against fictional players: one game in which they were excluded from the game and another in which they were included and the ball was shared equally between players. Whilst playing, participants’ arousal level was monitored via skin conductance. Participants were also required to complete a self-report questionnaire about their experience and mood after both games.

Results:  Individuals with ASD showed increased arousal compared with controls when playing the game (p < .001), both when excluded and included. Furthermore, individuals with ASD demonstrated higher levels of arousal when excluded from the game compared with when they were included. Individuals with ASD did not demonstrate habituation of arousal over the course of the game, as controls did. Psychological responses indicated that individuals with ASD showed similar patterns of responses to controls and shared the same social needs and mood.

Conclusions:  The present findings suggest that, when excluded, individuals with ASD exhibited greater emotional response to the game compared to controls. This would suggest that they are more sensitive to ostracism and these effects do not dissipate as quickly as controls. However, these elevated physiological effects of ostracism are not recognised and interpreted as emotionally salient by individuals with ASD.