Department of Neurology, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 52242, USA.
Autism has been thought to be characterized, in part, by dysfunction in emotional and social cognition, but the pathology of the underlying processes and their neural substrates remain poorly understood. Several studies have hypothesized that abnormal amygdala function may account for some of the impairments seen in autism, specifically, impaired recognition of socially relevant information from faces. We explored this issue in eight high-functioning subjects with autism in four experiments that assessed recognition of emotional and social information, primarily from faces. All tasks used were identical to those previously used in studies of subjects with bilateral amygdala damage, permitting direct comparisons. All subjects with autism made abnormal social judgments regarding the trustworthiness of faces; however, all were able to make normal social judgments from lexical stimuli, and all had a normal ability to perceptually discriminate the stimuli. Overall, these data from subjects with autism show some parallels to those from neurological subjects with focal amygdala damage. We suggest that amygdala dysfunction in autism might contribute to an impaired ability to link visual perception of socially relevant stimuli with retrieval of social knowledge and with elicitation of social behavior.