Press release

Study suggests atypical processing of emotions in people with autism

Published on 26 August 2021

Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can struggle to identify other people’s emotions when placed under pressure, according to research from the University of Dundee.

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Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can struggle to identify other people’s emotions when placed under pressure, according to research from the University of Dundee.

Dr Emese Nagy, Reader in Psychology at the University, looked at how children with ASD understand/recognise emotions. Children in the study were shown pictures of individuals displaying six basic emotions – happiness, sadness, disgust, anger, fear and surprise – and asked to choose which matched each image. In one task, the timing/speed of the responses did not matter, while in another, children were under a time pressure to make the decisions fast.

Dr Nagy, along with Psychology students Louise Prentice and Tess Wakeling, found that when there were no time constraints, autistic children were as able to identify emotions as well as children without ASD. However, when they were placed under pressure to make decisions about emotional faces fast, children with ASD found it more difficult to identify surprise and anger.

The researchers believe that children with ASD might use different methods of processing the information presented to them but that this only becomes apparent when they face the added pressure to perform within a time limit.

Dr Nagy said, “Difficulties with social-interaction is regarded as the most important feature of ASD. People with ASD are typically believed to struggle with recognising and understanding emotions, properly expressing them, and communicating through emotions.

“Research on many aspects of their ability to recognise emotions remains inconclusive, however, and rather than having a ‘deficiency’ with emotions, it may be possible that they perceive the same things in a different way, often with the same outcome as people without ASD.

“In our study, the accuracy of emotion recognition was comparable in the two groups when there was no time pressure. In the timed condition, however, children with ASD were less accurate in identifying anger and surprise compared to children without ASD. Instead of the belief that those with ASD cannot recognise facial emotions, it might be that they use ‘different’ processes to read emotions from faces.”

Eighteen participants aged between 12-17 years old took part in the study, with half having been diagnosed with ASD. All the children with autism attended special autism units in mainstream schools and were verbal. In the timed experiment the children had 1200 milliseconds to respond whereas in the non-timed experiment they could take as long as they wished to answer.

Overall, the results support an atypical processing hypothesis in emotion processing in ASD people. Employing time pressure might have challenged these atypical, less efficient neural processes in ASD, resulting in less accuracy in the timed experiment.

Previous studies have found that ASD and non-ASD people use different parts of the brain when performing emotion recognition tasks. These brain areas are known to help self-monitoring and attentional load, and may mean that tasks with emotions might be more effortful for people with ASD.

This raises the possibility of performance diminishing when task demands increase, which is what happened in the Dundee research in relation to the participant’s ability to recognise surprise and anger.

Dr Nagy says the reason for this might be that fear and surprise are negative emotions, which are generally more difficult to recognise. Surprise is often regarded as a ‘cognitive emotion’, which proves difficult even for people without ASD as we need to understand the beliefs and emotions of the other person to recognise it.

The findings are significant because a greater understanding of the ways people with ASD see the world may help shape environments to enable them to live as full a life as people without autism. The findings suggest that enabling educators and employers to make relatively simple adjustments could help people with ASD to thrive in settings where individuals have been known to struggle.

“Understanding these atypical processes and the environmental factors that challenge them could be beneficial in supporting socio-emotional functioning in people with ASD,” continued Dr Nagy.

“They may benefit from longer lessons, quiet, relaxed talking with ample of patience and time to understand the other person and respond to them. Educators could be trained to adapt to the conversational style of people with ASD, showing exaggerated, prolonged emotions and not requiring urgent, immediate responses.

“Even awareness to the subtle but potentially important differences in the way people with ASD understand emotions could have long lasting impact on the socio-emotional development and wellbeing of people with ASD. Future studies could help to explore how these strategies could be effectively implemented.”

The research is published today in the journal Perception.


Grant Hill

Senior Public Affairs Officer

+44 (0)1382 384768
Story category Research