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Atypical emotional anticipation in high-functioning autism

Jellema, Tjeerd; Burnett, Hollie G.; Palumbo, Letizia


Hollie G. Burnett

Letizia Palumbo


Background Understanding and anticipating others’ mental or emotional states relies on the processing of social cues, such as dynamic facial expressions. Individuals with high-functioning autism (HFA) may process these cues differently from individuals with typical development (TD) and purportedly use a ‘mechanistic’ rather than a ‘mentalistic’ approach, involving rule- and contingency-based interpretations of the stimuli. The study primarily aimed at examining whether the judgments of facial expressions made by individuals with TD and HFA would be similarly affected by the immediately preceding dynamic perceptual history of that face. A second aim was to explore possible differences in the mechanisms underpinning the perceptual judgments in the two groups. Methods Twenty-two adults with HFA and with TD, matched for age, gender and IQ, were tested in three experiments in which dynamic, ‘ecologically valid’ offsets of happy and angry facial expressions were presented. Participants evaluated the expression depicted in the last frame of the video clip by using a 5-point scale ranging from slightly angry via neutral to slightly happy. Specific experimental manipulations prior to the final facial expression of the video clip allowed examining contributions of bottom-up mechanisms (sequential contrast/context effects and representational momentum) and a top-down mechanism (emotional anticipation) to distortions in the perception of the final expression. Results In experiment 1, the two groups showed a very similar perceptual bias for the final expression of joy-to-neutral and anger-to-neutral videos (overshoot bias). In experiment 2, a change in the actor’s identity during the clip removed the bias in the TD group, but not in the HFA group. In experiment 3, neutral-to-joy/anger-to-neutral sequences generated an undershoot bias (opposite to the overshoot) in the TD group, whereas no bias was observed in the HFA group. Conclusions We argue that in TD individuals the perceptual judgments of other’s facial expressions were underpinned by an automatic emotional anticipation mechanism. In contrast, HFA individuals were primarily influenced by visual features, most notably the contrast between the start and end expressions, or pattern extrapolation. We critically discuss the proposition that automatic emotional anticipation may be induced by motor simulation of the perceived dynamic facial expressions and discuss its implications for autism.


Jellema, T., Burnett, H. G., & Palumbo, L. (2015). Atypical emotional anticipation in high-functioning autism. Molecular Autism, 6(1), 47-1-47-17.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jul 27, 2015
Online Publication Date Aug 15, 2015
Publication Date Aug 15, 2015
Deposit Date Feb 26, 2016
Publicly Available Date Nov 23, 2017
Journal Molecular autism
Print ISSN 2040-2392
Electronic ISSN 2040-2392
Publisher Springer Verlag
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 6
Issue 1
Article Number ARTN 47
Pages 47-1-47-17
Keywords High-functioning autism (HFA), Dynamic facial expressions, Perceptual distortions, Prediction, Anticipation, Embodied simulation, Theory of mind
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information This is a copy of an open access article published in Molecular autism, 2015, v.6.


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Copyright Statement
© Palumbo et al. 2015<br /> Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.

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