Wilbarger, J. L., McIntosh, D. N., & Winkielman, P. (2009). Startle modulation in autism: Positive affective stimuli enhance startle response. Neuropsychologia, 47, 1323–1331.
Behavioral evidence suggests that emotion processing deficits in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may occur at the level of basic (early, rapid, automatic) affective processes. Consistently, neurological evidence indicates that key brain areas associated with basic affective processing are atypical in ASD. The current study sought to better specify these deficits by comparing different components of basic affective processing in 14 adolescents and adults with ASD and 14 typical controls matched for age and verbal ability. Participants viewed affective pictures, and their responses were assessed with (i) affective eyeblink startle modulation, an indicator of the brain’s aversive motivational system; (ii) facial electromyography, an online indicator of implicit valence appraisal; and (iii) self-report, an indicator of overt valence appraisal. The results show that in contrast to the typical pattern, in which exposure to negative stimuli increases startle whereas exposure to positive stimuli decreases startle, individuals with ASD showed startle potentiation to both positive and negative stimuli. Atypical potentiation during positive stimuli occurred despite individuals with ASD demonstrating appropriate implicit valence appraisals, reflected in their facial EMG responses, and appropriate overt appraisals, reflected in their self-reported ratings of the stimuli. Potentiation of startle to both positive and negative stimuli suggests a disruption in basic affective processes in ASD at the level of the early motivational response. This atypical pattern of responses has implications for understanding social and emotion deficits in ASD and calls for further investigation of basic affective processes.