Adults with Autism Can Read Complex Emotions in Others

Summary: According to a new study, adults on the autism spectrum can recognize complex emotions, such as regret an relief, in others as easily as those without the condition.

Source: University of Kent.

New research shows for the first time that adults with autism can recognise complex emotions such as regret and relief in others as easily as those without the condition.

Psychologists at the University of Kent used eye-tracking technology to monitor participants as they read stories in which a character made a decision then experienced a positive or negative outcome.

The lead author Professor Heather Ferguson, from the University’s School of Psychology, explained that the study highlights a previously overlooked strength in adults with ASD.

The researchers found that adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were quickly able to think about how things might have turned out differently (either better or worse than reality), then judge whether the story character would feel regret or relief (known as counterfactual emotions).

emotional faces painted on balls
The adults with ASD were found to be just as good at recognising regret emotions in the character as adults without the condition, and even better at computing relief. image is in the public domain.

The adults with ASD were found to be just as good at recognising regret emotions in the character as adults without the condition, and even better at computing relief.

The eye-tracking method provided sensitive information on when readers had inferred the appropriate counterfactual emotion for the character. Appropriate emotions resulted in shorter reading times.

Professor Ferguson said: ‘Our study is unusual in using state-of-the-art eye-tracking methods to test how people understand emotions in real time. We have shown that, contrary to previous research that has highlighted the difficulties adults with autism experience with empathy and perspective-taking, people with autism possess previously overlooked strengths in processing emotions.’

About this neuroscience research article

Source: Martin Herrema – University of Kent
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “Intact counterfactual emotion processing in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from eye‐tracking” by Jo Black, Mahsa Barzy, David Williams, and Heather Ferguson in Autism Research. Published December 21 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of Kent”Adults with Autism Can Read Complex Emotions in Others.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 7 January 2019.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of Kent(2019, January 7). Adults with Autism Can Read Complex Emotions in Others. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 7, 2019 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of Kent”Adults with Autism Can Read Complex Emotions in Others.” (accessed January 7, 2019).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Intact counterfactual emotion processing in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from eye‐tracking

Counterfactual emotions, such as regret and relief, require an awareness of how things could have been different. We report a preregistered experiment that examines how adults with and without ASD process counterfactual emotions in real‐time, based on research showing that the developmental trajectory of counterfactual thinking may be disrupted in people with ASD. Participants were eye‐tracked as they read narratives in which a character made an explicit decision then subsequently experienced either a mildly negative or positive outcome. The final sentence in each story included an explicit remark about the character’s mood that was either consistent or inconsistent with the character’s expected feelings of regret or relief (e.g., “… she feels happy/annoyed about her decision.”). Results showed that adults with ASD are unimpaired in processing emotions based on counterfactual reasoning, and in fact showed earlier sensitivity to inconsistencies within relief contexts compared to TD participants. This finding highlights a previously unknown strength in empathy and emotion processing in adults with ASD, which may have been masked in previous research that has typically relied on explicit, response‐based measures to record emotional inferences, which are likely to be susceptible to demand characteristics and response biases. Therefore, this study highlights the value of employing implicit measures that provide insights on peoples’ immediate responses to emotional content without disrupting ongoing processing.

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  1. Jenny – you can speak from your own personal experience just as I can. I worked exclusively with children with all kinds of special needs for the last eleven years of my working life, including children displaying different autistic traits, and I am well aware of the vagaries of autism. This is not a subject on which to make comments like your last one lightly and, quite frankly, I am somewhat alarmed by it. A diagnosis of autism can take many months since the various agencies concerned have to monitor the situation, observe the child/adult in different situations and consult with each other before determining whether someone is on the spectrum or not. To suggest that diagnosing someone as autistic has become ‘a fashion’ is insulting to all concerned.

  2. I think it’s about time it was widely acknowledged that not only is every single person on the spectrum an individual with their own needs and abilities but that some of these people are actually acutely perceptive when it comes to recognising emotions. I have only to look at my five year old autistic grandson to see that of his own volition he is capable of making eye contact, hugging and showing genuine concern if someone is upset. In fact, he frequently displays more empathy than some of the so-called ‘normal’ adults of my acquaintance. The time is well and truly overdue that we see ASD in a far more positive light.

    1. Autism is NOT a single syndrome but a myriad of them. Speaking as some from a family rife with Asperger’s Syndrome, I can confidently state that they cannot recognise emotions in others correctly (mother, nephew, B-I-L) or they are indifferent to other people’s problems (father). I can also say that they do not show their own emotions very well.
      Other forms of Autism I have little experience with — but I do think that there is a fashion for diagnosing kids as Autistic just because they might be shy/socially awkward/not terribly average.

  3. I do NOT think that this research has shown that people with Autism recognise emotions in others — just that they can put toe appropriate word to situations described in words.

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