Date of Degree

6-2022

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.S.

Program

Cognitive Neuroscience

Advisor

Jennifer Wagner

Subject Categories

Cognitive Science

Keywords

autism, alexithymia, pupillometry, emotion

Abstract

Comprehending emotional states in others and oneself is a complex cognitive process. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social communication and interaction difficulties. Autistic individuals often show socio-emotional difficulties specifically in emotion recognition and understanding. However, it has been posited that these emotion processing difficulties may be due to alexithymia, a distinct co-occurring phenomenon typified by difficulty in identifying and describing feelings. Autism, alexithymia, and emotion understanding have been studied through behavioral, neural, and psychophysiological methods, and the current study examines how these characteristics are related in a non-autistic sample. Pupil diameter was measured in response to emotionally-valenced pictures (positive, neutral, negative) in college students varying in autistic and alexithymic traits, as measured by self-report questionnaires. Results showed that overall, pupil diameter was greater in response to negative images as compared to neutral and positive images. Further, higher levels of both alexithymic and autistic traits were related to greater pupil diameter to negative images. The final analysis showed that, after controlling for alexithymia, the association between autistic traits and pupil diameter to negative images was no longer significant. Consistent with prior work studying autistic individuals, the current study supports the notion that social and emotional difficulties that vary with levels of autistic traits in the broader population may also be attributed to alexithymic traits.

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