Investigating perception and attention to emotional expressions in the autism spectrum

  • Philip Griffiths

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Autism spectrum condition (ASC) is a lifelong developmental condition. Along with restricted interests and deficits in social imagination, people with ASC have difficulty understanding the social world. Evidence suggests that ASC individuals have difficulty understanding the emotional expressions of others, particularly when these expressions have negative valence. It is suggested that ASC is not a discrete phenomenon. Instead research has shown that traits associated with autism are seen in varying levels throughout the general population. It is believed that ASC is a spectrum, with those who have the most difficulty obtaining a diagnosis.The traits of autism present in the general population are seen to be qualitatively similar to those seen in ASC. It is therefore suggested that the ASC can be explored and further understood by assessing people in the Wider Autism Spectrum (WAS) of ASC-traits who do not hold a diagnosis. This research contributes to the understanding of the WAS and how ASC-traits manifest in the general population. Additionally, the differences between ASC and the WAS can be assessed by comparing the performance of people with a diagnosis to those in the WAS who have high ASC-traits. Through understanding the differences between these populations we are better able to understand what drives the clinical impairments associated with ASC.The current thesis assesses facial emotion processing in people with ASC and those in the WAS in order to understand the differences and similarities that exist. This was conducted using several cognitive tasks that assess the underlying brain mechanisms associated with facial emotion processing. Directed by the social motivation theory of autism, the current work used visual adaptation paradigms to assess how the brain represents emotional expression information in those with ASC and people with high and low ASC-traits. Additionally, the dot-probe paradigm was employed to explore attentional orienting for emotional expressions in ASC and the WAS.Results found that WAS participants with high ASC-traits do not represent negativeemotional expressions in the same way as those with fewer ASC-traits. When assessing attention mechanisms those with high autism-traits were more likely to bias attention towards emotional expression information. Results suggests that WAS individuals with high ASC-traits process emotional faces differently from their low ASC-trait counterparts and also have a different way of selecting which emotions to attend to in their environment. People with ASC had deficits in mental representation of emotional expression but did not show the same pattern of attention to emotional expressions seen in high ASC-trait WAS individuals. These results do not suggest the autism spectrum is linear. Results are discussed suggesting that those with high traits of autism have a profile of behaviour that cannot be explained by the social motivation theory whereas ASC results do follow predictions this theory makes.
Date of Award2 Jul 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorChris Ashwin (Supervisor) & Mark Brosnan (Supervisor)


  • Autism spectrum conditions
  • Emotion
  • Expression
  • Attention
  • Perception

Cite this