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Investigating automatic emotion processing in boys with autism via eye tracking and facial mimicry recordings

Journal Contribution - Journal Article

Difficulties in automatic emotion processing in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might remain concealed in behavioral studies due to compensatory strategies. To gain more insight in the mechanisms underlying facial emotion recognition, we recorded eye tracking and facial mimicry data of 20 school-aged boys with ASD and 20 matched typically developing controls while performing an explicit emotion recognition task. Proportional looking times to specific face regions (eyes, nose, and mouth) and face exploration dynamics were analyzed. In addition, facial mimicry was assessed. Boys with ASD and controls were equally capable to recognize expressions and did not differ in proportional looking times, and number and duration of fixations. Yet, specific facial expressions elicited particular gaze patterns, especially within the control group. Both groups showed similar face scanning dynamics, although boys with ASD demonstrated smaller saccadic amplitudes. Regarding the facial mimicry, we found no emotion specific facial responses and no group differences in the responses to the displayed facial expressions. Our results indicate that boys with and without ASD employ similar eye gaze strategies to recognize facial expressions. Smaller saccadic amplitudes in boys with ASD might indicate a less exploratory face processing strategy. Yet, this slightly more persistent visual scanning behavior in boys with ASD does not imply less efficient emotion information processing, given the similar behavioral performance. Results on the facial mimicry data indicate similar facial responses to emotional faces in boys with and without ASD. LAY SUMMARY: We investigated (i) whether boys with and without autism apply different face exploration strategies when recognizing facial expressions and (ii) whether they mimic the displayed facial expression to a similar extent. We found that boys with and without ASD recognize facial expressions equally well, and that both groups show similar facial reactions to the displayed facial emotions. Yet, boys with ASD visually explored the faces slightly less than the boys without ASD.
Journal: Autism Research
ISSN: 1939-3792
Issue: 7
Volume: 14
Pages: 1404 - 1420