Theory of Mind and Language Relate to Basic Emotion Recognition in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Open Access
Dawson, Tracy Anne
Area of Honors:
Biobehavioral Health
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Keith E Nelson, Thesis Supervisor
  • Lori Anne Francis, Honors Advisor
  • autism
  • autism spectrum disorders
  • emotion recognition
  • emotions
  • theory of mind
  • language
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that past studies have shown may result in difficulties with recognizing emotional expressions from the face, although the nature of the impairments in recognizing emotions for individuals with autism remains unclear (Akechi et al., 2009). This study compared a group of 24 children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis (M = 8.92 years, range: 7-12 years) to an age-matched control group of 24 typical developing children (M = 7.79 years, range: 7-12 years) on their ability to recognize basic emotional expressions. To examine group differences in emotion recognition, pictures of the eye regions of faces were presented with one of four basic emotion expressions (happy, sad, angry, or scared), and the children were asked to label which of the four emotions they thought best matched the picture. The study also examined how the basic emotion recognition measures correlated with two measures of language abilities and two measures of theory of mind abilities. The study found that there was a significant difference between the ASD and TD group on overall basic emotion scores, as well as for happy and scared expressions as separate measures. In the ASD group, basic emotion scores were also correlated with two theory of mind task scores and two language measures (syntax age equivalence and verbal IQ equivalence), as well as with age. However, none of these predictor variables were related to emotion recognition for the typically developing group. The results demonstrated that those with ASD have some emotion recognition impairments and that their development of emotion recognition skills is positively related to both language ability and theory of mind skills.