Non-Autistic People Accurately Recognize Autistic People's Emotional Expressions: Implications for Internal Representation

Author: ORCID icon
Lampi, Andrew, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Jaswal, Vikram, AS-Psychology (PSYC), University of Virginia

Feeling heard and understood by others is an important and meaningful part of social interaction. But many autistic people are misunderstood by non-autistic interlocutors, to the detriment of the quality of that social interaction as well as the autistic person’s overall well-being. One way that autistic people are misunderstood is in how their emotions are interpreted by other people, an experience autistic people have described as distressing. In this dissertation, I investigate one possible explanation for why these misunderstandings occur—namely, differences in internal representations of emotional facial expressions between autistic and non-autistic people. In five studies (N = 1,188), I found that non-autistic participants recognized the posed emotional expressions of autistic people better than those of non-autistic people and investigated the factors that contribute to this higher recognition accuracy. These findings are not compatible with the hypothesis that autistic people have different internal representations from non-autistic people, and therefore, this cannot be an explanation for why non-autistic people misunderstand autistic people’s emotions in live interactions. I conclude by considering why non-autistic posers were recognized less accurately than autistic posers, and offer alternative explanations for why non-autistic people misunderstand autistic people’s emotions.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Autism, Emotion, Internal Representations
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