Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Deficits in facial, body movement and vocal emotional processing in autism spectrum disorders

R. C. M. Philipa1 c1, H. C. Whalleya1, A. C. Stanfielda1, R. Sprengelmeyera2, I. M. Santosa3, A. W. Younga4, A. P. Atkinsona5, A. J. Caldera6, E. C. Johnstonea1, S. M. Lawriea1 and J. Halla1

a1 Division of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh, UK

a2 School of Psychology, University of St Andrews, UK

a3 Department of Educational Sciences, University of Aveiro, Portugal

a4 Department of Psychology, University of York, UK

a5 Department of Psychology, University of Durham, UK

a6 MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, UK


Background Previous behavioural and neuroimaging studies of emotion processing in autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have focused on the use of facial stimuli. To date, however, no studies have examined emotion processing in autism across a broad range of social signals.

Method This study addressed this issue by investigating emotion processing in a group of 23 adults with ASD and 23 age- and gender-matched controls. Recognition of basic emotions (‘happiness’, ‘sadness’, ‘anger’, disgust' and ‘fear’) was assessed from facial, body movement and vocal stimuli. The ability to make social judgements (such as approachability) from facial stimuli was also investigated.

Results Significant deficits in emotion recognition were found in the ASD group relative to the control group across all stimulus domains (faces, body movements and voices). These deficits were seen across a range of emotions. The ASD group were also impaired in making social judgements compared to the control group and this correlated with impairments in basic emotion recognition.

Conclusions This study demonstrates that there are significant and broad-ranging deficits in emotion processing in ASD present across a range of stimulus domains and in the auditory and visual modality; they cannot therefore be accounted for simply in terms of impairments in face processing or in the visual modality alone. These results identify a core deficit affecting the processing of a wide range of emotional information in ASD, which contributes to the impairments in social function seen in people with this condition.

(Received March 21 2009)

(Revised September 16 2009)

(Accepted September 25 2009)

(Online publication January 27 2010)


c1 Address for correspondence: Dr R. C. M. Philip, Division of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh, Kennedy Tower, Royal Edinburgh Hospital, Edinburgh EH10 5HF, UK. (Email: