Examining the relationship between measures of autistic traits and neural synchrony during movies in children with and without autism
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Children who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often show a marked deficit in measures of social cognition. In autistic adults, measures of social cognition have been shown to relate to differences in brain synchronization (as measured by fMRI) when individuals are processing naturalistic stimuli, such as movies. However, whether children who differ in their degree of autistic traits, with or without a diagnosis of ASD, differ in their neural responses to movies has not yet been investigated. In the current study, neural synchrony, measured using fMRI, was examined in three groups of children aged 7 to 12, who differed with respect to scores on a measure of autistic traits associated with social impairment and whether or not they had been diagnosed with ASD. While watching the movie ‘Despicable Me’, those diagnosed with ASD had significantly less neural synchrony in areas that have been previously shown to be associated with social cognition (e.g. areas related to ‘theory of mind’), and plot following (e.g. the lateral prefrontal cortex), than those who did not have an ASD diagnosis. In contrast, two groups who differed in their degree of autistic traits, but did not have a diagnosis of ASD, showed no significant differences in neural synchrony across the whole brain. These results shed some light on how autistic traits may contribute to an individual's conscious experience of the world, and how, for children with ASD, that experience may differ markedly from that of those without ASD.