Difficulties with facial expression processing may be associated with the characteristic social impairments in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Emotional face processing in ASD has been investigated in an abundance of behavioral and EEG studies, yielding, however, mixed and inconsistent results.
We combined fast periodic visual stimulation (FPVS) with EEG to assess the neural sensitivity to implicitly detect briefly presented facial expressions among a stream of neutral faces, in 23 boys with ASD and 23 matched typically developing (TD) boys. Neutral faces with different identities were presented at 6 Hz, periodically interleaved with an expressive face (angry, fearful, happy, sad in separate sequences) every fifth image (i.e., 1.2 Hz oddball frequency). These distinguishable frequency tags for neutral and expressive stimuli allowed direct and objective quantification of the expression‐categorization responses, needing only four sequences of 60 s of recording per condition.
Both groups show equal neural synchronization to the general face stimulation and similar neural responses to happy and sad faces. However, the ASD group displays significantly reduced responses to angry and fearful faces, compared to TD boys. At the individual subject level, these neural responses allow to predict membership of the ASD group with an accuracy of 87%. Whereas TD participants show a significantly lower sensitivity to sad faces than to the other expressions, ASD participants show an equally low sensitivity to all the expressions.
Our results indicate an emotion‐specific processing deficit, instead of a general emotion‐processing problem: Boys with ASD are less sensitive than TD boys to rapidly and implicitly detect angry and fearful faces. The implicit, fast, and straightforward nature of FPVS‐EEG opens new perspectives for clinical diagnosis.