Whitney Worsham and Dr. Michael Larson, Department of Psychology
The purpose of this research project was to investigate underlying difficulties with social interaction in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Previous research has demonstrated that children with ASD are inhibited in processing social cues, including social threat (Krysko & Rutherford, 2009). We hypothesized that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) would demonstrate decreased reaction times and error rates relative to typically-developing children when viewing social threat-related stimuli. We also hypothesized that, when viewing non-social threat-related stimuli with no social context, children with ASD would display intact performance relative to typically developing
children. We tested these hypotheses through comparing the response times and error rates from a computerized dot probe task with social and non-social threatening stimuli.
Although individuals with ASD do show the ability to detect threatening faces more quickly and accurately than friendly faces, they demonstrate overall slower response times and increased error rates in comparison to typically-developing children doing the same task (Krysko & Rutherford, 2009). These results suggest that children with ASD may be impaired in the ability to detect social-threat relative to typically developing children. Notably, individuals with ASD do not display a disadvantage when detecting non-social threat-related stimuli (South et al., 2008). Prior to this project, research had not been conducted to directly compare the relationship between how children with ASD respond to social
threat versus non-social threat. This research project aimed to investigate whether children with ASD have difficulties detecting threat in general, or whether children with ASD are only disadvantaged when interpreting threat relating to socially salient stimuli. Through the research findings we hoped to provide new information regarding how individuals with ASD respond to social information.
Participants included 22 children diagnosed with ASD who were considered high functioning (IQ>80) and 27 healthy children who were matched based on age and IQ. Behavioral data was collected through the implementation of a dot probe task utilized to determine how children with ASD respond to social and non-social threat. The task consisted of words chosen from a previously published list tested for reliability and categorization (Matthews, Mogg, Kentish, & Eysenck, 1995). The three types of stimuli included neutral, social threat, and physical threat words. The social threat stimuli include words such as, “lonely,” “foolish,” and “hopeless” along with other words that have negative social connotations. In comparison, the non-social threat stimuli included physically threatening words such as, “injury,” “hazard,” and “disease.” The task displayed a word from one of the three categories for 600 milliseconds prior to a dot appearing on the top or bottom of the computer screen (Keogh, Dillon, Georgiou & Hunt, 2001). The participants were instructed to respond as quickly and accurately as possible regarding the location of the dot along with determining when the dot appeared on the screen. In order to directly compare how children with ASD respond to social versus non-social threat, we utilized a design wherein each participant viewed both social and non-social threat related stimuli. We conducted a 2-Group (ASD, Control) x 3-Threat Condition (Social Threat, Neutral, Non-Social Threat) ANOVA in order to determine how children with ASD responded to social versus non-social threat relative to controls.
The 2-Group x 3-Threat Condition (Social Threat, Non-Social Threat and Neutral) ANOVA revealed no main effect of threat condition for combined groups regarding accuracy rates F (2, 47)= .40, p=.67. Accuracy for all categories was at ceiling (>95% for all conditions for both groups). The results for the repeated measures ANOVA regarding reaction times were similar, as there was no main effect of threat condition for combined groups F (2, 47)=1.39, p= .26. There were also no significant main effects or interactions as a function of diagnostic group (ASD, controls), Fs<1.58, ps>.21 for both reaction times and accuracy rates.
We sought to test the hypothesis that children diagnosed with ASD who were considered high functioning would display decreased reaction times and accuracy rates relative to controls in response to social-threat related stimuli. We also hypothesized that children with ASD would display intact performance relative to controls in response to non-social threat related stimuli. Our results indicate that children with ASD respond to social and non-social threat in a manner similar to that of neurotypically-developing controls and are not inhibited in responding to socially salient threat stimuli. Future directions for this research include the implementation of other experimental paradigms that will better differentiate how individuals with ASD respond to social threat relative to controls to eliminate the ceiling effect. These tasks will display both social and non-social information in order to gain a better understanding of how individuals with ASD respond to socially salient stimuli relative to controls.
The research findings will be presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) in May 2013 and we are currently in the process of preparing a manuscript for publication in academic journals such as Emotion, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders or Cognition and Emotion.
- Keogh E, Dillon C, Georgiou G, Hunt C. (2001). Selective attentional biases for physical threat in physical anxiety sensitivity. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 15, 299–315.
- Krysko, K. M., & Rutherford, M. D. (2009). A threat-detection advantage in those with autism spectrum disorders. Brain and Cognition, 69(3), 472-480.
- Mathews, A., Mogg, K., Kentish, J. and Eysenck, M., 1995. Effect of psychological treatment on cognitive bias in generalized anxiety disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33, 293–303.
- South, M., Ozonoff, S., Suchy, Y., Kesner, R. P., McMahon, W. M., & Lainhart, J. E. (2008). Intact emotion facilitation for nonsocial stimuli in autism: Is amygdala impairment in autism specific for social information? Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 14(1), 42-54.