Recognition of emotional facial expressions is considered to be atypical in autism. This difficulty is thought to be due to the way that facial expressions are visually explored. Evidence for atypical visual exploration of emotional faces in autism is, however, equivocal. We propose that, where observed, atypical visual exploration of emotional facial expressions is due to alexithymia, a distinct but frequently co-occurring condition. In this eye-tracking study we tested the alexithymia hypothesis using a number of recent methodological advances to study eye gaze during several emotion processing tasks (emotion recognition, intensity judgements, free gaze), in 25 adults with, and 45 without, autism. A multilevel polynomial modelling strategy was used to describe the spatiotemporal dynamics of eye gaze to emotional facial expressions. Converging evidence from traditional and novel analysis methods revealed that atypical gaze to the eyes is best predicted by alexithymia in both autistic and non-autistic individuals. Information theoretic analyses also revealed differential effects of task on gaze patterns as a function of alexithymia, but not autism. These findings highlight factors underlying atypical emotion processing in autistic individuals, with wide-ranging implications for emotion research.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
GB is supported by the Baily Thomas Charitable Trust .
This work was partly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Grant: ES/R007527/1 ).
HCC is supported by a Medical Sciences Division Graduate Studentship awarded by the Clarendon Fund and the Kendrew Fund .
© 2021 Elsevier B.V.
- Emotion recognition
- Eye gaze
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Language and Linguistics
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- Linguistics and Language
- Cognitive Neuroscience