Neurobiological Foundations of Self-Conscious Emotion Understanding in Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders
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This dissertation explored the subjective experience and neural correlates of self-conscious emotion (SCE) understanding in adolescent males with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and age-matched neurotypical (NT) males (ages 11-17). Study I investigated group differences in SCE attributions (the ability to recognize SCEs conveyed by others) and empathic SCEs (the ability/tendency to feel empathic SCEs for others) in 56 adolescents (ASD = 30; NT = 26). It also explored associations between SCE processing and a triad of social cognitive abilities (self-awareness/introspection, perspective-taking/cognitive empathy, affective empathy) and autistic symptoms/traits. Study II investigated the neural correlates of SCE processing in 52 adolescents (ASD = 27; NT = 25). During an MRI scan, participants completed the Self-Conscious Emotions Task-Child, which included 24 salient, ecologically-valid videos of adolescents participating in a singing competition. Videos represented two factors: emotion (embarrassment, pride) and perspective-taking (PT) demands (low, high). In low PT clips, singers’ emotions matched their performance (sing poorly, act embarrassed); in high PT clips, they did not (sing well, act embarrassed). Participants used a 4-point Likert scale to rate how intensely embarrassed and proud singers felt. They made congruent ratings, which matched the conveyed emotions (rating how embarrassed an embarrassed singer felt), and incongruent ratings, which did not match the conveyed emotions (rating how proud an embarrassed singer felt). Outside the scanner, participants rated how empathically embarrassed and proud they felt for the singers. The ASD and NT groups made similarly intense inferred congruent and empathic congruent SCE ratings, suggesting that emotion attribution and affective empathy are intact in ASD. However, the ASD group made more intense inferred incongruent SCE ratings, suggesting that emotion attribution in ASD may be more strongly impacted by the situational context. An over-reliance on contextual cues may reflect a strict adherence to rule-following and serve as a compensatory strategy for attenuated mentalizing. Neuroimaging results support this interpretation. The ASD group recruited atypical neural patterns within social cognition regions, visual perception regions, salience regions, and sensorimotor regions. These findings similarly suggest an over-reliance on abstract social conceptual knowledge when processing discrepant affective and contextual cues. Implications for intervention are discussed.