For people with neurodevelopmental disorders, recognizing others people’s facial expressions can be tricky. A research team recently investigated which common elements of neurodevelopmental disorders cause trouble for emotion recognition. They evaluated the emotion recognition abilities of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The findings indicate that social perception skills vary across disorders, but that some traits are linked to social perception, regardless of diagnostic criteria.
The study was part of the Province of Ontario Neurodevelopmental Disorders Network, a large research initiative examining symptoms from a broad perspective. The researchers administered the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test to 118 children with ASD, 71 children with ADHD, 42 children with OCD, and 34 typically developing children. For the test, the children looked at pictures of faces showing only the eyes and then selected the emotion that best described the image. A higher test score indicates strong abilities in recognizing the emotions or mental states of others. The researchers grouped test items by difficulty and emotion type (negative or positive). They also analyzed whether certain symptoms, like hyperactivity, could hinder social perception.
The scores on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test revealed several patterns. Intelligence quotient (IQ) scores were correlated with stronger emotion recognition skills. When the researchers controlled for IQ scores, they found distinct ability patterns in each of the three disorders:
- Children with ASD had the lowest scores. They struggled the most with easy questions and identifying positive emotions, compared to the other groups.
- Children with ADHD did better than the children with ASD, but worse than the typically developing children. They, too, struggled to identify positive emotions.
- Children with OCD scored better than the typically developing children. They scored the best in recognizing nuanced neutral emotions like “thinking about something.”
There were some patterns in emotional recognition skills that transcended the children’s diagnostic criteria. Older participants scored better than younger ones in all of the groups. Additionally, children with better social communication skills demonstrated better social perception. Children who had hyperactive or impulsive traits tended to score lower on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test. However, when the researchers controlled for these traits, there were still differences in performance between the groups, suggesting that other factors may account for variance in social perception abilities.
The study indicates that children with certain traits, like impulsiveness, may be at risk for impaired social skills, regardless of their diagnosis.
This research is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.