People with ASD could be better at recognizing regret and relief in others finds study

A new study has shown that adults with ASD are better at detecting relief and regret on the faces of others compared to those who do not have the condition. The results of the study were published in the latest issue of the journal Autism Research.

Image Credit: Lori Werhane
Image Credit: Lori Werhane

Lead author Heather Ferguson, from the department of neurolinguistics, semantics and syntax at the University of Kent, in a statement said, “We have shown that, contrary to previous research that has highlighted the difficulties adults with autism experience with empathy and perspective-taking, people with autism possess previously overlooked strengths in processing emotions.”

The team looked at 48 adult participants – 24 with and 24 without ASD. The participants were given to read a story about a person who experiences regret or relief. They used eye-tracking methods to assess the reactions of the participants. In the story the protagonist or the person makes a decision that leads to a good or a bad outcome and the mood at the end of the result is summer up as “happy or annoyed”. If the final emotion did not match up to the narrative of the story, the participants were confused and either spent more time re-reading the passage or looked back at the previous sentences for clues. This meant that the participant was trying to make sense of the story that seemed absurd. For example one of the stories said in details how a woman decided to buy the shoes she loved and then she was annoyed. The ey tracking helped the team detect the emotional and neurological responses to the story.

The team explained that most of the participants could predict the end of the story saying if the protagonist would be relieved or feel regret. This is called “counterfactual thinking”. There have been studies showing that people with ASD have a disrupted counterfactual thinking. This study refutes those findings. The researchers found that people with ASD were somehow better than those without in this form of thinking.

Authors conclude, “Thus, our findings reveal that adults with ASD can employ sophisticated processes to adopt someone else's perspective, and use this in real-time as the reference for future processing... These findings suggest that the previously observed difficulty with complex counterfactual emotions may be tied specifically to difficulties with the explicit expression of emotions rather than any difficulty experiencing them implicitly at a neurocognitive level.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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