Background: Despite extensive research, it is still debated whether impairments in social skills of individuals with pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) are related to specific deficits in the early processing of emotional information. We aimed to test both automatic processing of facial affect as well as the integration of auditory and visual emotion cues in individuals with PDD.
Methods: In a group of high-functioning adult individuals with PDD and an age- and IQ-matched control group, we measured facial electromyography (EMG) following presentation of visual emotion stimuli (facial expressions) as well as the presentation of audiovisual emotion pairs (faces plus voices). This emotionally driven EMG activity is considered to be a direct correlate of automatic affect processing that is not under intentional control.
Results: Our data clearly indicate that among individuals with PDD facial EMG activity is heightened in response to happy and fearful faces, and intact in response to audiovisual affective information.
Conclusions: This study provides evidence for enhanced sensitivity to facial cues at the level of reflex-like emotional responses in individuals with PDD. Furthermore, the findings argue against impairments in crossmodal affect processing at this level of perception. However, given how little comparative work has been done in the area of multisensory perception, there is certainly need for further exploration.