By Heather Nuske, OTARC PhD
The way in which people with autism perceive and express emotions has captured my interest and fascination, and I expect this will continue for many years to come. Although there is much that is still to be discovered, from my research and others on this topic, as well as my clinical experience with people with autism, there are a few things we can confidently describe at this stage:
- People with autism are not ‘emotionally detached’. Anybody who has worked or interacted with children and adults with autism could tell you this. Studies have shown that people with autism express emotion in different ways, they direct their emotions to others less frequently with eye contact and they sometimes get emotional about different things, but they certainly have emotion.
- Processing of emotion can be more effortful and take more time for people with autism. Our recent studies have found a pattern suggesting that children with autism need a longer time to process and react to emotional facial expressions, such as happy, angry, fear etc. This is consistent with previous work in the area. It means that in everyday social contexts, which are fast-paced and ever-changing, people with autism can have difficulty as they can sometimes be emotionally ‘out of sync’ or ‘out of time’ with their social partners.
- Some forms of emotional expression are easier for people with autism to process than others. In general, emotions expressed by the human face, voice and body are more difficult for people with autism to understand and react to than emotions expressed through non-human or non-bodily forms, such as music or written words. However, it depends on who the person expressing the emotion is, that is, whether they are a stranger or someone familiar. One of our recent studies found more typical emotional reactions in children with autism to emotions expressed by people they knew, compared to people they didn’t know.
Our next focus in this area of research is to understand how people with autism learn about the world through the emotions of others, to study how emotion is related to eye contact, and to examine more closely the many ways that people with autism express their emotion – stay tuned!
For more information, please read our review on this topic:
Nuske, H. J., Vivanti, G., & Dissanayake, C. (2013a). Are emotion impairments unique to, universal, or specific in autism spectrum disorder? A comprehensive review. Cognition & Emotion, 27(6), 1042–1061. doi:10.1080/02699931.2012.762900
Read further about the importance of social interaction for people with autism at The Raising Children’s Network website.