Clark, T. F., Winkielman, P. & McIntosh, D. N. (2008). Autism and the extraction of emotion from briefly presented facial expressions: Stumbling at the first step of empathy. Emotion, 8, 803-809.
Identification of other people’s emotion from quickly presented stimuli, including facial expressions, is fundamental to many social processes, including rapid mimicry and empathy. This study examined extraction of valence from brief emotional expressions in adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition characterized by impairments in understanding and sharing of emotions. Control participants were individuals with reading disability and typical individuals. Participants were shown images for durations in the range of microexpressions (15 ms and 30 ms), thus reducing the reliance on higher level cognitive skills. Participants detected whether (a) emotional faces were happy or angry, (b) neutral faces were male or female, and (c) neutral images were animals or objects. Individuals with ASD performed selectively worse on emotion extraction, with no group differences for gender or animal– object tasks. The emotion extraction deficit remains even when controlling for gender, verbal ability, and age and is not accounted for by speed–accuracy tradeoffs. The deficit in rapid emotional processing may contribute to ASD difficulties in mimicry, empathy, and related processes. The results highlight the role of rapid early emotion processing in adaptive social– emotional functioning.