Evaluative conditioning of emotional expression in Autism Spectrum Disorders
To appropriately respond to the emotional state of others, it is necessary to accurately perceive the emotion. To perceive an emotion's meaning suggests that a person has learned that a smile communicates happiness and a frown communicates anger. There is a growing body of literature indicating that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have significant difficulties understanding and differentiating emotional expressions and that this may play an integral role in the observable social impairments observed. The current study examined whether emotion perception difficulties in persons with ASD were related to impairments in the implicit learning of the relation between emotional expressions and information in the environment. Specifically, the current study used an evaluative conditioning task in which social-emotional and non-social neutral expressions were paired with neutral stimuli. It was predicted that typical individuals would prefer the stimuli associated with positive emotional expressions. In contrast, this learning was predicted to not occur in the ASD sample. Sixteen young adults with ASD were compared to fifteen young adults with typical development. Participants were administered a computer task that presented cartoon characters paired to faces exhibiting happy or angry expressions, or paired with a neutral gray box. Participants were then asked to provide preferences for characters and ratings for likeability. An explicit memory test was also conducted. Despite successful pilot testing, adequate learning of distinctive emotions was not observed in either diagnostic sample. However, a significant preference for non-social paired stimuli, as opposed to social-paired stimuli, was reflected in the ASD sample. A preference was not observed in the typically developing sample. Due to a lack of successful implicit learning in the typically developing sample, conclusions may not be appropriately drawn from the performance of the ASD sample. However, patterns in learning styles and explicit memory results do suggest explicit learning in the ASD sample, as well as continued preference for nonsocial stimuli in adulthood. These findings lend support to theories of differing learning styles in ASD compared to typically developing peers. Research regarding the differing learning styles of those with ASD is important to consider in the development and implementation of interventions.