Background: Recent theories have linked autism to challenges in prediction learning and social cognition. It is unknown, however, how autism affects learning about threats from others “demonstrators” through observation, which contains predictive learning based on social information. The aims of this study are therefore to investigate social fear learning in individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and to examine whether typically developing social cognition is necessary for successful observational learning.
Methods: Adults with ASD (n = 23) and neurotypical controls (n = 25) completed a social fear learning (SFL) procedure in which participants watched a “demonstrator” receiving electrical shocks in conjunction with a previously neutral conditioned stimulus (CS+), but never with a safe control stimulus (CS−). Skin conductance was used to measure autonomic responses of learned threat responses to the CS+ versus CS−. Visual attention was measured during learning using eye tracking. To establish a non-social learning baseline, each participant also underwent a test of Pavlovian conditioning.
Results: During learning, individuals with ASD attended less to the demonstrator’s face, and when later tested, displayed stronger observational, but not Pavlovian, autonomic indices of learning (skin conductance) compared to controls. In controls, both higher levels of attention to the demonstrator’s face and trait empathy predicted diminished expressions of learning during test.
Limitations: The relatively small sample size of this study and the typical IQ range of the ASD group limit the generalizability of our findings to individuals with ASD in the average intellectual ability range.
Conclusions: The enhanced social threat learning in individuals with ASD may be linked to difficulties using visual attention and mental state attributions to downregulate their emotion.