Home Mind & Brain Study Finds No Link Between Alexithymia and Socio-Cognitive Abilities in Adolescents with Autistic Traits

Study Finds No Link Between Alexithymia and Socio-Cognitive Abilities in Adolescents with Autistic Traits

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A recent study found no significant association between alexithymia and sociocognitive abilities such as emotion recognition and theory of mind (ToM) in adolescents enhanced for autistic traits.

The study, which was published in the journal Autism, looked at the alexithymia hypothesis. According to this theory, alexithymia may actually be the cause of social and cognitive functioning issues that are frequently associated with autism. But the findings showed that alexithymia levels did not significantly affect associations between autistic traits and lower performance in emotion recognition and ToM tasks.

Many autistic people suffer from alexithymia, a sub-clinical condition that causes difficulty recognising and describing one’s own emotions. The alexithymia hypothesis says that emotional and social-cognitive problems that are often linked to autism, like having trouble recognising emotions and understanding how other people are feeling, might actually be better explained by having alexithymia. Previous research has predominantly focused on adults, leaving a gap in understanding its relevance to younger populations.

The study involved 184 adolescents aged 10 to 16 years, including 75 diagnosed with autism. The participants completed tasks measuring emotion recognition and ToM, while their parents provided assessments of autistic traits and alexithymia using the Children’s Alexithymia Measure-Parent Report (CAM-PR). The researchers conducted pre-registered analyses to examine the relationships between autistic traits, alexithymia, and socio-cognitive performance.

Participants with higher levels of autistic traits showed lower performance in emotion recognition tasks. However, when alexithymia was included in the regression models, it did not significantly alter the association between autistic traits and emotion recognition performance. Similarly, higher autistic traits were associated with lower ToM performance. Including alexithymia in the models did not significantly change this association. The findings suggest that alexithymia does not independently predict ToM abilities over and above autistic traits.

The study found no significant effect of alexithymia on socio-cognitive task performance. The Bayes factors showed some support for the null hypothesis, which says that alexithymia does not affect teens with autistic traits’ ability to recognise emotions or use top-of-the-mind (ToM) skills.

The results challenge the alexithymia hypothesis, at least in the context of adolescence and when using parent-report measures. The lack of significant findings regarding alexithymia’s impact on socio-cognitive abilities raises important questions about the developmental trajectory of alexithymia and its role in socio-cognitive functioning.

Several potential explanations for the discrepancy between the current findings and previous adult studies were considered. It is possible that alexithymia’s effects on socio-cognitive abilities emerge later in development. The study noted a positive, though non-significant, correlation between age and alexithymia, suggesting that its impact might become more apparent in late adolescence or adulthood. The use of parent-report measures for assessing alexithymia might not capture the full extent of the condition, especially in adolescents with less observable manifestations. Future research with more diverse and robust measures of alexithymia is needed to clarify its role.

Differences in the cognitive profiles of participants who received autism diagnoses in childhood versus those diagnosed later in life might contribute to varying findings across studies. The study comes to the conclusion that having autistic traits is strongly linked to having problems with recognising emotions and tolerating others’ feelings, but these problems are not explained by having alexithymia at the same time.

This finding highlights the need for further research to explore the developmental aspects of alexithymia and its potential impact on socio-cognitive functioning across different age groups. Understanding the distinct contributions of autism and alexithymia is crucial for developing targeted interventions to support individuals with these conditions.

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