A Virtual Joy-Stick Study of Emotional Responses and Social Motivation in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Kwanguk Kim, M. Zachary Rosenthal, Mary Gwaltney, William Jarrold, Naomi Hatt, Nancy McIntyre, Lindsay Swain, Marjorie Solomon Friedman, Peter Clive Mundy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


A new virtual reality task was employed which uses preference for interpersonal distance to social stimuli to examine social motivation and emotion perception in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Nineteen high function children with higher functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder (HFASD) and 23 age, gender, and IQ matched children with typical development (TD) used a joy stick to position themselves closer or further from virtual avatars while attempting to identify six emotions expressed by the avatars, happiness, fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and surprise that were expressed at different levels of intensity. The results indicated that children with HFASD displayed significantly less approach behavior to the positive happy expression than did children with TD, who displayed increases in approach behavior to higher intensities of happy expressions. Alternatively, all groups tended to withdraw from negative emotions to the same extent and there were no diagnostic group differences in accuracy of recognition of any of the six emotions. This pattern of results is consistent with theory that suggests that some children with HFASD display atypical social-approach motivation, or sensitivity to the positive reward value of positive social–emotional events. Conversely, there was little evidence that a tendency to withdraw from social–emotional stimuli, or a failure to process social emotional stimuli, was a component of social behavior task performance in this sample of children with HFASD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3891-3899
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015


  • Emotional accuracy
  • High function Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Interpersonal distance
  • Reward sensitivity
  • Social-motivation
  • Virtual avatar

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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