Thesis defense - Christina Ioannou (LNC): "Facing social threats in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders"


September 22, 2017
At 2:30pm, salle de Conférence (ENS, 46 rue d'Ulm)


Jury :
The defense will be in English and the jury will be composed of:
- Christina Schmitz (rapporteur)
- Robert Soussignan (rapporteur)
- Marie Gomot (examinatrice)
- Frédérique de Vignemont (examinatrice)
- Tiziana Zalla (examinatrice)
- Julie Grèzes (directrice de thèse)

Abstract:
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental conditions characterised by persistent deficits in social reciprocity. Deficits in emotion perception are common in ASD and suggested to stem from a generalised deficit in the processing of facial affect. The literature however is inconsistent, stressing the importance of methodological factors that might bring individuals with ASD to a disadvantage. Two relevant theoretical frameworks are considered: 1) the behavioural self-regulation account proposes that affective atypicalities stem from deficits in the processing of the emotional signals and/or the regulation of appropriate responses to these signals; and 2) the social motivation account proposes that the mechanisms behind either of these two stages of emotion understanding are intact and that behavioural deficits stem from reduced weighting of social information. This Ph.D. aimed to disentangle between the two theories in the context of social threats by taking into account the necessary methodological factors. Experiment 1 investigated the contextual impact of gaze direction on the categorisation of facial expressions of anger and fear. Experiment 2 investigated both free action choice in response to implicit social threats –facial expressions of anger and fear- and their emotion categorisation accuracy in visual periphery. Across both studies ASD and typically developing (TD) adolescents demonstrated intact processing of both anger and fear in direct view and in visual periphery and were sensitive to the changes in emotional intensity of the stimuli. In Experiment 1, although the control group was overall more accurate than the ASD group in emotion decoding, gaze direction impacted the processing of threat similarly in both groups. Specifically, gaze direction raised the saliency of the threat for the observer and enhanced their sensitivity to the most salient ones. In Experiment 2, both groups demonstrated an overall tendency to avoid emotional agents, which was particularly evident in the case of anger. Taken together, the mechanisms behind the processing of facial social threats appear relatively spared in ASD adolescents and the impact of contextual factors are similar ASD and typical development. Adolescents with ASD are able to use social threats to adapt their behaviour by avoiding the emotional agent, which is not surprising during a developmental period characterised by enhanced reactivity to threat. These findings are discussed in terms of the social motivation and behavioural self-regulation frameworks and future directions are proposed.