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Understanding emotions in individuals with autism

An interview with Dr Sebastian Gaigg from the Autism Research Group
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City University London is lighting it up blue to support World Autism Awareness Day on 2nd April

To show City University London's support for World Autism Awareness Day on Wednesday 2nd April, The College Building and The Social Science Building will be illuminated with blue lights for the evening.

City has had a research group dedicated to researching autism, officially known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), since 1993. The Autism Research Group comprises three full time researchers and six PhD students, as well as a number of honorary associate staff and collaborators.

Dr Sebastian Gaigg is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at City. He joined the Autism Research Group in 2001 as Professor Dermot Bowler's research assistant, completing his PhD in 2008. We spoke to him about his research into ASD:

What part of your work would you most like to draw attention to for World Autism Awareness Day?

One of the great myths about ASD is that individuals who are diagnosed with the disorder have no emotions - that they are somehow like Mr Spock from Star Trek. Our research in the Autism Research Group shows that this is not the case.

Although individuals with ASD may express and experience their emotions differently, they do not lack emotions altogether. In fact, a very large proportion of adolescents and adults with ASD suffer from anxiety and depression and more research is needed to shape strategies of how best to help them through such difficulties.

When you say individuals with ASD experience emotions differently, what do you mean exactly?

This is a really difficult question because we can never know for sure what it 'feels' like to be someone else. However, on self-report questionnaire measures, individuals with ASD often report that they experience difficulties identifying and describing their own emotions.

Why do you think that is?

Our research suggests that there are at least two reasons for this. First, we have found that both individuals with and without ASD remember emotional events better than neutral ones, but this memory advantage fades more quickly over time for individuals with ASD.

Memory for emotional material

This is relevant to the question of why individuals with ASD might experience difficulties identifying their own emotions. People generally learn about what it's like to feel a certain way by accumulating lots of memories about times when they felt a similar way. Imagine, for example, if you felt something you have never felt before - you would probably not be able to identify the feeling or describe it very well; instead you may begin to feel anxious.

And the second reason?

nullIn our most recent work, we have discovered that the extent to which individuals with ASD report difficulties identifying their own emotions is closely associated with the extent to which their reported feelings relate to their physiological arousal levels.

To give an example, imagine you were confronted with a spider and asked about how it made you feel. Typically, your reported feeling would reflect your body's arousal level (the 'fight-or-flight' response), which can be measured by monitoring how much your palms sweat. In individuals with ASD who report difficulties identifying their own emotions, this association between subjective and objective measures of arousal is much reduced.


What does the future hold?

As hinted to above, we need more research to better understand how we can help individuals with ASD through periods of anxiety and/or depression. We are currently pursuing funding to allow us to look into these issues and we believe that our work so far provides the solid foundations needed to make important contributions in this area.

You can follow City's World Autism Awareness Day campaign on twitter #CityInBlue and we'll be posting all the images on our Facebook page after the event.

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.