To investigate the association between autistic traits and emotion recognition in a large community sample of children using facial and social motion cues, additionally stratifying by gender.
A general population sample of 3,666 children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) were assessed on their ability to correctly recognize emotions using the faces subtest of the Diagnostic Analysis of Non-Verbal Accuracy, and the Emotional Triangles Task, a novel test assessing recognition of emotion from social motion cues. Children with autistic-like social communication difficulties, as assessed by the Social Communication Disorders Checklist, were compared with children without such difficulties.
Autistic-like social communication difficulties were associated with poorer recognition of emotion from social motion cues in both genders, but were associated with poorer facial emotion recognition in boys only (odds ratio = 1.9, 95% CI = 1.4, 2.6, p = .0001). This finding must be considered in light of lower power to detect differences in girls.
In this community sample of children, greater deficits in social communication skills are associated with poorer discrimination of emotions, implying there may be an underlying continuum of liability to the association between these characteristics. As a similar degree of association was observed in both genders on a novel test of social motion cues, the relatively good performance of girls on the more familiar task of facial emotion discrimination may be due to compensatory mechanisms. Our study might indicate the existence of a cognitive process by which girls with underlying autistic traits can compensate for their covert deficits in emotion recognition, although this would require further investigation.