Background: Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterised by social and communication difficulties in day-to-day life, including problems in recognising emotions. However, experimental investigations of emotion recognition ability in ASD have been equivocal, hampered by small sample sizes, narrow IQ range and over-focus on the visual modality.
Methods: We tested 99 adolescents (mean age 15;6 years, mean IQ 85) with an ASD and 57 adolescents without an ASD (mean age 15;6 years, mean IQ 88) on a facial emotion recognition task and two vocal emotion recognition tasks (one verbal; one non-verbal). Recognition of happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust were tested. Using structural equation modelling, we conceptualised emotion recognition ability as a multimodal construct, measured by the three tasks. We examined how the mean levels of recognition of the six emotions differed by group (ASD vs. non-ASD) and IQ (≥ 80 vs. < 80).
Results: We found no evidence of a fundamental emotion recognition deficit in the ASD group and analysis of error patterns suggested that the ASD group were vulnerable to the same pattern of confusions between emotions as the non-ASD group. However, recognition ability was significantly impaired in the ASD group for surprise. IQ had a strong and significant effect on performance for the recognition of all six emotions, with higher IQ adolescents outperforming lower IQ adolescents.
Conclusions: The findings do not suggest a fundamental difficulty with the recognition of basic emotions in adolescents with ASD.