Motivation, emotion regulation, and the latent structure of psychopathology: An integrative and convergent historical perspective.
Pervasive social difficulties among individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often construed as deriving from reduced sensitivity to social stimuli. Behavioral and neurobiological evidence suggests that typical individuals show preferential processing of social (e.g., voices, faces) over nonsocial (e.g., nonvocal sounds, images of objects) information, whereas individuals with ASD may not. This reduction in sensitivity may reflect disrupted reward processing [Dawson & Bernier, ], with significant developmental consequences for affected individuals. In this study, we explore effects of social and monetary reward on behavioral and electrodermal responses (EDRs) among 8- to 12-year-old boys with (n = 18) and without (n = 18) ASD, with attention to the potential moderating effects of stimulus familiarity. During a simple matching task, participants with and without ASD had marginally slower reactions during social vs. nonsocial reward, and boys with ASD had less accurate responses than controls. Compared to baseline, reward and non-reward conditions elicited more frequent and larger EDRs for participants as a whole, and both groups showed similar patterns of EDR change within reward blocks. However, boys with and without ASD differed in their EDRs to non-reward, and response amplitude was correlated with social and emotional functioning. These findings provide some support for altered reward responding in ASD at the autonomic level, and highlight the discontinuation of reward as an important component of reward-based learning that may play a role in shaping behavior and guiding specialized brain development to subserve social behavior and cognition across the lifespan.