Relationships between Autistic Traits and Processing of Complex Emotional Faces

A successful interpersonal connection builds upon social interactions that require accurate recognition and interpretation of emotional facial expressions (Fiske & Haslam, 1996). Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are known to undergo challenges in social situations because of their deficits in executive functioning and emotion identification (Keehn et al., 2013). However, in attentional discrimination tasks that involve unique item detection, autistic children perform faster than control children. This finding supports the conclusion that individuals with ASD have superior visuospatial skills (Shah, 1988) and helps explain their exceptional talents in detecting objects of interest (Plaisted et al., 1998). For this study, a total of 60 neurotypical William and Mary undergraduate students will be recruited. Building upon previous research that used one of the visuospatial discrimination tasks – the visual search task – participants will be asked to press one of two designated computer keys as quickly as possible to identify whether or not one of the faces shows an emotion that is distinct from all of the others. There will be a total of nine types of trials – a combination of basic, intermediate, and complex targets paired with basic, intermediate, or complex distractors. In addition, a self-report Autism Quotient (AQ) Questionnaire will be used to measure the degree of autistic traits in individual participants. The purpose of this study is to test whether neurotypical students with a higher degree of autistic traits will still perform better on a visual search task that involves more complex emotional face expressions such as pride and embarrassment in addition to happiness, anger, surprise, and fear. Those who score higher on the AQ are expected to demonstrate shorter response times because of their exceptional visuospatial skills. The results may have significant implications in helping people with ASD improve their ability to identify emotions and engage in social situations with higher fluency.