The social motivation hypothesis posits that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) find social stimuli less rewarding than do people with neurotypical activity. However, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies of reward processing have yielded mixed results.Objectives
To examine whether individuals with ASD process rewarding stimuli differently than typically developing individuals (controls), whether differences are limited to social rewards, and whether contradictory findings in the literature might be due to sample characteristics.Data Sources
Articles were identified in PubMed, Embase, and PsycINFO from database inception until June 1, 2017. Functional MRI data from these articles were provided by most authors.Study Selection
Publications were included that provided brain activation contrasts between a sample with ASD and controls on a reward task, determined by multiple reviewer consensus.Data Extraction and Synthesis
When fMRI data were not provided by authors, multiple reviewers extracted peak coordinates and effect sizes from articles to recreate statistical maps using seed-based d mapping software. Random-effects meta-analyses of responses to social, nonsocial, and restricted interest stimuli, as well as all of these domains together, were performed. Secondary analyses included meta-analyses of wanting and liking, meta-regression with age, and correlations with ASD severity. All procedures were conducted in accordance with Meta-analysis of Observational Studies in Epidemiology guidelines.Main Outcomes and Measures
Brain activation differences between groups with ASD and typically developing controls while processing rewards. All analyses except the domain-general meta-analysis were planned before data collection.Results
The meta-analysis included 13 studies (30 total fMRI contrasts) from 259 individuals with ASD and 246 controls. Autism spectrum disorder was associated with aberrant processing of both social and nonsocial rewards in striatal regions and increased activation in response to restricted interests (social reward, caudate cluster: d = −0.25 [95% CI, −0.41 to −0.08]; nonsocial reward, caudate and anterior cingulate cluster: d = −0.22 [95% CI, −0.42 to −0.02]; restricted interests, caudate and nucleus accumbens cluster: d = 0.42 [95% CI, 0.07 to 0.78]).Conclusions and Relevance
Individuals with ASD show atypical processing of social and nonsocial rewards. Findings support a broader interpretation of the social motivation hypothesis of ASD whereby general atypical reward processing encompasses social reward, nonsocial reward, and perhaps restricted interests. This meta-analysis also suggests that prior mixed results could be driven by sample age differences, warranting further study of the developmental trajectory for reward processing in ASD.