Facial Emotion Processing in Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: A Test of the Emotion Specificity Hypothesis




Way, Erin L.

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Prenatal alcohol exposure is the leading non-genetic, biological cause of birth defects and other anomalies. Perhaps as many as 1 in 100 children born in the United States each year have been exposed to alcohol during prenatal development and meet the criteria for a Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) diagnosis (May & Gossage, 2001; Schonfeld et al., 2006; Wattendorf & Muenke, 2005). There is abundant evidence of deficits in social functioning as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure (Coggins et al., 2003; Kodituwakku, May et al., 2001; McGee et al., 2009; Thomas et al., 1998). Many other atypically developing populations with demonstrated social deficits also have emotion-specific impairments in facial recognition that are more pronounced than would be expected based on the overall cognitive functioning of these individuals (i.e. emotion specificity hypothesis; Rojahn et al., 1995). The documented social impairment in children with prenatal alcohol exposure indicates these individuals also have emotion- specific facial recognition impairments. This study tested the emotion specificity hypothesis in a group of children with FASD and compared the facial emotion processing abilities of these children with reports of their adaptive social behavior. Twenty-five children with a FASD diagnosis, 14 children with Down syndrome, and 23 typically developing children matched on mental age participated in this study. Four facial processing tasks (2 emotion processing and 2 control tasks) were administered to all participants. Both labeling and matching formats were included in the emotion and control tasks. Although not expected, the children with FASD had similar performance to the typically developing children on all facial processing tasks, which failed to support the emotion specificity hypothesis in this population. As predicted, the children with Down syndrome showed poorer performance than the children with FASD and the typically developing children across all facial processing tasks. These tasks failed to reveal performance differences between children with FASD and typically developing children; however, facial emotion processing deficits may still exist within the FASD population. Future studies should consider modifying task demands to more accurately reflect natural face processing situations and include children with a FASD diagnosis from less enriched environments and with documented intellectual delays.



Prenatal alcohol exposure, Fetal alcohol syndrome, Face processing, Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Facial emotion recognition, Down Syndrome