Association between autistic traits and emotion adaptation to partially occluded faces

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Prolonged exposure to a happy face makes subsequently presented faces appear sadder: the facial emotion aftereffect (FEA). People with autism spectrum disorders and their relatives have diminished holistic perception of faces. Levels of autism can be measured continuously in the general population by autistic traits using the autism-quotient (AQ). Prior work has not found any association between AQ and FEA in adults, possibly due to non-holistic processing strategies employed by those at the higher end of the spectrum. In the present study, we tested whether AQ was associated with FEA to partially occluded faces. We hypothesized that inferring emotion from such faces would require participants to process their viewable parts as a gestalt percept, thus we anticipated this ability would diminish as autistic traits increased. In Experiment 1, we partially occluded the adapting faces with aligned or misaligned opaque bars. Both conditions produced significant FEAs, with aftereffects and AQ negatively correlated. In Experiment 2, we adapted participants to obscured faces flickering in luminance, and manipulated the facilitation of holistic perception by varying the synchronization of this flickering. We found significant FEAs in all conditions, but abolished its association with AQ. In Experiment 3, we showed that the association between AQ and FEA in the occluded conditions in Experiment 1 was not due to the recognizability or perceived emotional intensity of our adaptors; although the overall FEAs were linked to emotional intensity. We propose that increasing autistic traits are associated with diminishing abilities in perceiving emotional faces as a gestalt percept.

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