Responses to the Negative Emotions of Others by Autistic, Mentally Retarded, and Normal Children


  • This research was supported by grants NS25243 from NINDS and HD17662 from NICHD. Jung-Hye Kwon is currently at Seoul University and Nurit Yirmiya is currently at the University of Jerusalem. We are grateful to Alison Anson, Michael Espinosa, Stephanie Freeman, Margie Greenwald, Alisa Hoffman, Nicholas Lofthouse, Alma Lopez, and Susan Toth for their contributions to this research.

Send reprint requests to: Marian Sigman, Department of Psychiatry, 68–237B NPI, UCLA Medical School, Los Angeles, CA 90024.


Attention, facial affect, and behavioral responses to adults showing distress, fear, and discomfort were compared for autistic, mentally retarded, and normal children. The normal and mentally retarded children were very attentive to adults in all 3 situations. In contrast, many of the autistic children appeared to ignore or not notice the adults showing these negative affects. As a group, the autistic children looked at the adults less and were much more engaged in toy play than the other children during periods when an adult pretended to be hurt. The autistic children were also less attentive to adults showing fear, although their behavior was not different from the normal children. Few of the children in any group showed much facial affect in response to these situations. The results are discussed in terms of the importance of affect in the social learning experiences of the young child.