Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental condition, and multiple theories have emerged concerning core social deficits. While the social motivation hypothesis proposes that deficits in the social reward system cause individuals with ASD to engage less in social interaction, the overly intense world hypothesis (sensory over-responsivity) proposes that individuals with ASD find stimuli to be too intense and may have hypersensitivity to social interaction, leading them to avoid these interactions.
EEG was recorded during reward anticipation and reward processing. Reward anticipation was measured using alpha asymmetry, and post-feedback theta was utilized to measure reward processing. Additionally, we calculated post-feedback alpha suppression to measure attention and salience. Participants were 6- to 8-year-olds with (N = 20) and without (N = 23) ASD.
Children with ASD showed more left-dominant alpha suppression when anticipating rewards accompanied by nonsocial stimuli compared to social stimuli. During reward processing, children with ASD had less theta activity than typically developing (TD) children. Alpha activity after feedback showed the opposite pattern: children with ASD had greater alpha suppression than TD children. Significant correlations were observed between behavioral measures of autism severity and EEG activity in both the reward anticipation and reward processing time periods.
The findings provide evidence that children with ASD have greater approach motivation prior to nonsocial (compared to social) stimuli. Results after feedback suggest that children with ASD evidence less robust activity thought to reflect evaluation and processing of rewards (e.g., theta) compared to TD children. However, children with ASD evidence greater alpha suppression after feedback compared to TD children. We hypothesize that post-feedback alpha suppression reflects general cognitive engagement—which suggests that children with ASD may experience feedback as overly intense. Taken together, these results suggest that aspects of both the social motivation hypothesis and the overly intense world hypothesis may be occurring simultaneously.
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