Social impairment is a defining phenotypic feature of autism. The present study investigated whether individuals with autistic traits exhibit altered perceptions of social emotions.
Two groups of participants (High-AQ and Low-AQ) were recruited based on their scores on the autism-spectrum quotient (AQ). Their behavioral responses and event-related potentials (ERP) elicited by social and nonsocial stimuli with positive, negative, and neutral emotional valence were compared in two experiments. In Experiment 1, participants were instructed to view social-emotional and nonsocial-emotional pictures. In Experiment 2, participants were instructed to listen to social-emotional and nonsocial-emotional audio recordings.
More negative emotional reactions and smaller amplitudes of late ERP components (the late positive potential in Experiment 1 and the late negative component in Experiment 2) were found in the High-AQ group than in the Low-AQ group in response to the social-negative stimuli. In addition, amplitudes of these late ERP components in both experiments elicited in response to social-negative stimuli were correlated with the AQ scores of the High-AQ group.
Although the influence of autistic traits on reactions to social or nonsocial emotional stimuli was assessed in an experimental setting, whether and how these reactions are related to real-world behavior requires further investigation. In addition, filler trials should be used to evaluate whether participants focused sufficiently on the emotional stimuli.
These results suggest that individuals with autistic traits have altered emotional processing of social-negative emotions.