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Original Paper

Folia Phoniatr Logop 2014;66:2536


DOI: 10.1159/000363739

Published online: November 14, 2014

Judging Emotions in Lexical-Prosodic


Congruent and Incongruent Speech Stimuli by
Adolescents in the Autism Spectrum
Osnat Segal Dafna Kaplan Smadar Patael Liat Kishon-Rabin
Department of Communication Disorders, Sackler Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

Abstract
Objective: The purpose of the present study was to assess
how adolescents with autism who vary in the severity of autistic characteristics judge the emotional state of the speaker
when lexical and prosodic information is congruent or incongruent. Participants: Eighty participants, 24 autistic and
56 typically developing (TD) subjects participated: (a) 11 autistic adolescents between 9.5 and 16.83 years old, studying
at general education settings (AA1), (b) 13 autistic adolescents between 15.91 and 20.33 years old, studying at a special school (AA2), and (c) 56 TD subjects between 6 and 29
years old. Listeners were required to judge the emotional
meaning of words (sad/happy) in congruent conditions and
incongruent conditions. Results: (a) All participants judged
lexical and prosodic meaning separately with high accuracy,
(b) all participants showed prolonged reaction times in the
incongruent compared to the congruent condition, (c) AA1
relied on prosodic information in the incongruent condition
similarly to TD 915 year olds and TD adults, (d) AA2 and TD
68 year olds did not rely on prosodic information in the incongruent condition, and (e) both education placements,
the severity of autistic characteristics and nonverbal IQ con-

2014 S. Karger AG, Basel


10217762/14/06620025$39.50/0
E-Mail karger@karger.com
www.karger.com/fpl

tributed to prosodic judgment in the incongruent condition


in autistic adolescents. Conclusions: The two groups of autistic adolescents processed both lexical and prosodic information in the incongruent condition. However, the severity
of autistic characteristics influenced the preference for prosody.
2014 S. Karger AG, Basel

Introduction

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder expressed in early childhood. The core
deficits in ASD have been defined as a combination of
impairments in social interaction and communication
accompanied with fixated interests, and stereotyped or
repetitive behaviors [1]. Importantly, autism is a continuum disorder, ranging from severe autism to highfunctioning autism (HFA) with normal nonverbal ability
[2, 3].
Individuals with ASD have in many cases fluent speech
[4, 5], but their pragmatic-semantic use and understanding of language in social contexts is impaired. For example, individuals with ASD showed difficulties in turn taking during conversation [6], in taking into consideration
the perspective of another person [7] and in adequately
Osnat Segal
7b Zelig Bas
Petach Tiqwa (Israel)
E-Mail segalll@netvision.net.il

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Key Words
Emotions Speech stimuli Autism spectrum

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Folia Phoniatr Logop 2014;66:2536


DOI: 10.1159/000363739

improve task sensitivity and validity and found that adults


with HFA and AS performed more poorly than did controls in the prosodic perception of complex emotions
such as defiance, frustration, arrogance and worry, to
mention a few, as opposed to the more basic emotions
(happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust)
that have been typically investigated [29, 30]. In this
group of participants with ASD, verbal IQ was positively
correlated with performance in the AS/HFA group [29].
Other studies on affective prosody in autism suggested
that children with ASD have difficulties in making socioemotional judgments, such as whether the speaker is calm
or excited, talking to a child or to an adult [18], and whether the speaker likes or dislikes a particular food item [23].
Several studies also showed that children with autism have
difficulty matching vocally expressed affect to facial expressions or to emotion words (e.g. happy, sad, scared)
[3133], and that adolescents with AS have difficulties in
identifying emotions based on prosody alone when presented with social interactions in a video movie [11]. It
was also found that children with HFA had a reduced ability to recognize subtle or low-intensity expressions of the
emotions happy, sad, angry or scared from prosody
compared to children with AS and TD children [34].
Although much of the published literature suggests
difficulties in processing and understanding affective
prosody [19, 2835], there are other studies that found
ASD to perform as TD peers [10, 26]. The discrepancies
in the data may be related to the task (e.g. understanding
prosody alone or within a social context) [10], the type of
the presented emotion (e.g. complex or basic) [26, 29, 31],
the saliency of the presented emotion [34] as well as the
linguistic abilities of the participants [29].
One interesting aspect of affective prosody that has not
been tested extensively in an autistic population is their
ability to judge the emotional state of the speaker in an
incongruent emotional lexical-prosodic condition [36].
For example, if in response to the frequent question How
are you? the response is Fine spoken in a sad intonation,
most adults may immediately respond with Whats
wrong? implying that they were not convinced that the
true state of mind of the person they were interacting with
was indeed fine. Developmental studies with TD participants show a shift from relying on contextual [37] and
lexical information in young children to relying on prosody in older children and adults [3841]. However, because of the difficulties adolescents with ASD may have
in perceiving affective prosody, it is not clear whether
they will show the same bias for prosodic information in
incongruent lexical-prosodic conditions [29].
Segal/Kaplan/Patael/Kishon-Rabin

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responding to what another person has said [6]. Difficulties in understanding nonliteral language such as irony
[4], figurative expressions and metaphors [8, 9] have also
been reported, suggesting a tendency for literal understanding of language without taking into consideration
the real intention of the speaker and the context. Furthermore, individuals with ASD showed difficulties drawing
appropriate inferences especially in multiple-cue environments [8, 10]. Children with ASD may understand,
for example, the meaning of mental verbs but failed to
infer what these verbs imply in situation [8]. They also
understood the feeling of the character in a story based on
prosody alone, but failed to judge the feeling of this character based on prosody when there is a discrepancy between positive prosody and the context [10]. Finally, individuals with ASD often displayed difficulties in the production and comprehension of speech prosody which is
known to carry the pragmatic information concerning
the intention of the speaker [1118].
Pragmatic impairments in ASD are usually explained
by the inability to understand the state of mind of other
people in the interaction [19, 20]. One of the major cues
for understanding the state of mind of others is related to
the ability to interpret correctly the prosody on which
their words are carried. Prosody refers to the suprasegmental aspects of speech, including variations in fundamental frequency (F0), intensity and duration [21]. These
prosodic characteristics carry a variety of communicative
meanings including grammatical, pragmatic and affective
purposes [22, 23]. Specifically, affective prosody includes
suprasegmental cues that are used to signal the mental
state and feeling of the speaker as well as the changes in
register used for different social functions [2427].
The ability of autistic children, adolescents and adults
to perceive and process affective prosody has been mainly studied in the perspective of the theory of mind (ToM)
hypothesis [19]. The ToM suggests that the basic deficit
of autism involves a cognitive deficit in inferring the mental states of others. In agreement with the ToM hypothesis, studies suggest that individuals with HFA have difficulties in recognizing complex emotions that involve
advanced understanding of social and interpersonal situations from prosodic information. Rutherford et al. [28],
for example, investigated the ability of adults with HFA
or Aspergers syndrome (AS) to understand vocally expressed complex emotions (e.g. suspicious, worried, nervous) presented in spoken phrases. Their results showed
that participants with HFA and AS were impaired in this
task compared to typically developing (TD) adults. Golan
et al. [29] used revised tasks from Rutherford et al. [28] to

Judging Emotions by Prosody by


Adolescents with ASD

conditions develops through childhood, (b) to provide


evidence regarding the type of information adolescents
with ASD rely on when judging the emotional state of the
speaker (lexical or prosodic), and (c) to obtain insight
into the decision-making process of adolescents with
ASD, that is to assess whether adolescents with ASD ignore one dimension when processing lexical-prosodic incongruent stimuli or process both aspects by measuring
reaction time in congruent and incongruent conditions.
Method
Participants
Adolescents with ASD
This study included 24 adolescents with ASD with no comorbid
psychiatric disorders who studied either at regular schools (AA1,
n = 11) or at a special school for children with ASD (AA2, n = 13).
The participants in the 2 groups were assessed by psychiatric specialists and were diagnosed according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) [45] criteria for autistic
disorder. In the first group of participants (AA1), 4 adolescents
were diagnosed with AS, 1 with pervasive developmental disorder
not otherwise specified and the remaining 6 with autism. In the
second group of participants (AA2), all adolescents were diagnosed
with autism. The main caregiver of all participants completed the
autism-spectrum quotient (AQ) questionnaire [46]. Participants in
both groups scored above 26 points on this questionnaire which
was previously reported as a sensitive cutoff point [47, 48] that distinguishes the general Israeli population from those diagnosed on
the autism spectrum disorders [49]. The mean AQ score for AA1
(mean = 29.64, SD = 2.80) was significantly lower compared to the
AA2 (mean = 36, SD = 5.99; t22 = 3.07, p = 0.006) confirming less
autistic characteristics of those who studied in regular schools. The
participants were administered the Raven Progressive Matrices test
for assessing abstract-analytical nonverbal intelligence [50]. The
difference between the 2 groups of participants with ASD on the
Raven scores in percentiles and standard score were nonsignificant
(p > 0.05). The descriptive characteristics of the 2 groups of participants with ASD are summarized in table1.
The adolescents in the 2 groups of ASD showed fluent use of
spoken language with diverse sentence types and grammatical
forms. All participants used language to provide information
about everyday events, as well as events out of the immediate context. They also produced some logical connections within and between sentences. This information was gathered from the childrens teachers and was verified in a pretest conversation phase by
the experimenters who are certified communication disorder clinicians with special interest in language development and disorders.
TD Groups
Three additional groups of TD children, adolescents and young
adults served as controls: (1) 22 TD children (12 males and 10 females) between the ages of 6 years 9 months and 7 years 9 months
(mean = 7.40, SD = 0.67), (2) 21 TD children (9 males and 13 females) between the ages of 8 years 10 months and 15 years 4
months (mean = 11.01, SD = 2.06) and (3) 16 TD adults (1 male,

Folia Phoniatr Logop 2014;66:2536


DOI: 10.1159/000363739

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One previous study on adults with ASD showed that


they had a reduced ability to recognize emotions in incongruent lexical-prosodic meaning compared to TD
adults [36]. However, it is not clear from this study whether the participants with ASD process both the lexical and
the prosodic information in the speech stimuli or simply
ignore one aspect. In the TD population, there is evidence
for prolonged reaction time for incongruent stimuli compared to congruent stimuli. The prolonged reaction time
suggests that the participants process both types of information (e.g. lexical and prosodic) and that the conflict
between these two types of information slows mental processing [42, 43]. This leads to the prediction that if adolescents with ASD process the incongruent stimuli on the
basis of one dimension, either lexical or prosodic, they
will show similar reaction times to both congruent and
incongruent stimuli. If, on the other hand, adolescents
with ASD process both the lexical and the prosodic information in the incongruent stimuli, they will show longer
(or prolonged) reaction times. Thus, the purpose of the
present study was to determine how adolescents diagnosed with autism judge the emotional state of the speaker when there is a conflict between the lexical and the
prosodic information in the word, i.e. whether they base
their decision on prosodic information, on lexical information or both, to varying degrees. Such information
may provide insight to our understanding regarding the
way by which the autistic population processes spoken
messages when there is a conflict between the lexical and
the prosodic meaning.
Importantly, there is some evidence for confounding
factors that may influence performance in the task of
emotional judgment in adolescents with ASD. These factors include the severity of the pathology on the autistic
spectrum, cognitive abilities and educational placement
which may contribute additional sources of variance [44].
Yet, studies so far have been mainly concentrated on individuals without severe autistic characteristics, who had
normal intelligence and were educated in general education settings [36]. Little is known, however, on the emotional judgment in adolescents with ASD who have severer communication and/or cognitive disabilities, and
who usually study in special educational placement for
individuals with ASD [44]. Thus, the present study assessed emotional judgment in adolescents with ASD who
study in different educational settings and who demonstrate a range of cognitive and communication abilities.
The goals of the present study were as follows: (a) to
provide additional support for the limited data suggesting
that prosodic judgment in lexical-prosodic incongruent

Table 1. Descriptive characteristics of the two groups of participant with ASD

Characteristics

AA1 (n = 11;
9 males, 2 females)

Age, years
AQ scores
Raven scores in percentiles
for age norms
Raven standard scores

range

mean

SD

12.75
29.64

2.18 9.5 16.83


2.80 26 36

63.90
110.45

45.85
34.96

0.1 99.9
55 145

AA2 (n = 13;
10 males, 3 females)

Significance

mean

SD

range

16.95
36

1.64
5.99

15.91 20.33
28 45

54.79
98.07

42.47
32.63

0.1 99.9
55 145

t22 = 5.36, p < 0.001


t22 = 3.07, p = 0.006
n.s.
n.s.

Raven = Matrices test for assessing nonverbal intelligence; n.s. = nonsignificant.

Stimuli
Stimuli consisted of a total of 40 words: 15 words associated
with happy meaning, 15 words associated with sad meaning and
10 neutral words with no emotional intent (see Appendix 1 for the
list of words). The words were judged on their association with the
meaning sad/happy/neutral with separate scaling. Eight children
with a mean age of 7.7 years (SD = 1.17) and 15 adults with a mean
age of 29.8 years (SD = 9.96) judged the words. Sad and happy
words chosen for the test from a total of 69 words scored above 5
points on a scale from 1 to 7 by both adults and children (mean =
6.06, 6.29, SD = 0.32, 0.37, for sad and happy words, respectively)
suggesting that all judges graded them as highly associated with
either sad or happy meaning. The mean scores for sad and happy
judgment did not differ significantly (p > 0.05). Neutral words
were scored between 1 and 3 points on a 17 scale suggesting that
all judges graded them as not associated with either sad or happy
meaning (mean = 2.36, SD = 0.27). Additionally, words were
judged by adults on a 17 familiarity scale and were perceived as
familiar (mean = 4.98, 5.45, 4.72, SD = 0.66, 1.1, 0.98, for sad, happy and neutral words, respectively). The words are shown in Appendix 1. Note that words with happy and sad meaning were
matched by number of syllables.
Recording of Stimuli
Stimuli were produced and recorded by a female, native Hebrew speaker in a soundproof room via a JVC MV 40 microphone
using Sound Forge software (version 4.5a), at a sampling rate of
44,100 Hz and with 16-bit quantization. Ten sad/happy words (5

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Folia Phoniatr Logop 2014;66:2536


DOI: 10.1159/000363739

words with happy meaning and 5 words with sad meaning) were
recorded with neutral prosody, 10 neutral words were recorded
with happy/sad prosody (5 words with happy prosody and 5 words
with sad prosody). The additional 20 words (10 words with happy
meaning and 10 words with sad meaning) were recorded twice:
once with happy prosody and once with sad prosody, resulting in
20 congruent stimuli (sad or happy meaning with congruent sad
or happy prosody, respectively), and 20 incongruent stimuli (sad
or happy meaning with incongruent happy or sad prosody, respectively). All words were normalized for intensity without changing
the intensity ratios between syllables within the words.
Since F0 is the main acoustic parameter reflecting emotion [52],
we analyzed F0 parameters in each stimulus (word). F0 was extracted by autocorrelation using the speech analysis software
PRAAT. F0 mean, F0 minimum and F0 maximum were computed
for each stimulus. The results are shown in Appendix 2. Note that
words with the same prosody but opposing lexical meaning did not
differ in the measurements of F0 (p > 0.05). This suggests that the
speaker was able to control for the prosody in production regarding the lexical meaning of the word. Overall, test items with happy
prosody had an increased F0 range (mean = 236.88, SD = 119.40)
compared to test items with sad prosody (mean = 146.78, SD =
54.03; t19 = 3.42, p = 0.003).
In order to confirm that the prosody of words was perceived by
listeners as sad, happy or neutral, the words were low-pass filtered
with a 100- to 500-Hz low-pass band with a slope of 96 dB per octave. Six additional adult listeners listened to the low-pass filtered
stimuli and judged them as happy, sad or neutral based on prosody alone. All judges confirmed for all words the intended prosody
of the recorded word.
Baseline and Testing Material
The recorded words were divided into two baselines and the
test materials as shown in Appendix 1. Each baseline was aimed to
assess the ability of the participant to recognize the lexical meaning
or prosody of the presented word while the other dimension (lexical meaning or prosody) was neutral. The lexical baseline included 10 words with neutral prosody and lexical meaning that was
associated with sad/happy feeling (5 words with happy meaning
and 5 words with sad meaning). The mean duration of the happy
(mean = 576 ms, SD = 56) and sad words (mean = 627 ms, SD =
66) was not significantly different (p > 0.05). The prosodic baseline

Segal/Kaplan/Patael/Kishon-Rabin

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15 females) between the ages of 26 and 29 years (mean = 24.56,


SD = 1.63). The age range in the 2 groups of TD children (younger and older) was based on previous data showing that children
above the age of 9 already tend to judge incongruent lexical-prosodic stimuli by prosodic information [38]. All participants had no
known developmental problems and no learning or reading disabilities according to their parents report as well as self-report.
All participants of the present study were native Hebrew speakers, and Hebrew was the only language spoken at home by their
parents. Normal hearing was confirmed prior to testing using a
hearing screening test in frequencies 0.54 kHz [51]. Informed
consent to participate in this study was obtained from the parent
and the participant.

Baseline 1: lexical judgment


Baseline 2: prosodic judgment

**
**

100
90
Correct response (%)

80
70
60
50
40
30
20
10
0

68

915
Years

2629

AA1

AA2

Procedure
Participants were tested individually in a quiet room using a
Dell Precision 4300 computer. The stimuli were presented with the
Superlab 4.5 software. The participants sat facing the monitor, and
the experimenter sat beside the participant. Each participant heard
first the baseline lists and then the test word lists. The 10 stimuli of
each baseline were presented randomly. The 40 stimuli of the test
phase were presented twice in random order.
Participants were told that they were going to play a listening
game. In the lexical baseline the instructions were: My friend,
Danna will say words and youll decide whether the word is connected to something sad or happy. If you choose happy, press the
key with the happy face, if you choose sad, press the key with the
sad face. In the prosodic baseline the instructions were: My friend,
Danna will say words and youll decide whether her voice is sad or
happy. If you choose happy, press the key with the happy face, if
you choose sad, press the key with the sad face. In the test phase
the instructions were: My friend, Danna will say words and youll
decide whether she feels sad or happy. If you choose happy, press
the key with the happy face, if you choose sad, press the key with
the sad face.
The instructions were written on the computers monitor, and
the experimenter read them to the participant out loud and gave
an example in words. Before the beginning of both baselines and
the test, 2 examples were provided through the computer in order
to confirm that the participant understood the task and recognized
the buttons for sad/happy. In the lexical baseline, the examples included 2 words with sad and happy meaning and neutral prosody.
In the prosodic baseline, the examples included 2 words with sad
and happy prosody and neutral meaning. In the test phase, the examples included lexical-prosodic congruent and incongruent
stimuli. Feedback was provided through the computer and by the
experimenter. After the 2 examples, the experimenter confirmed
that the participant understood the task. All participants understood the task within the 2 examples.
The software written for this experiment controlled for presentation of stimuli and collection of responses and reaction
times. Reaction times were defined as the time in milliseconds
from the end of the stimulus to the entry of the keyed response
(happy or sad). The stimuli were presented through the computer at a comfortable level of 65 dB HL. The distance from the

Baselines
The average percentages of correct responses for each
baseline across the 5 groups of participants are summarized in figure 1.
Overall, all participants performed with high recognition scores on both baselines although a drop in performance can be seen for AA2. Repeated measures analysis
of variance following arcsine transformation with correct response scores in each baseline as the dependent
variable and type of baseline and group of participants as
the independent variable was conducted on the data. The
statistical analysis revealed no interaction between type
of baseline and group (p > 0.05) and no main effect for
type of baseline (scores for baseline 1 or 2; p > 0.05). A
main effect was found for group (F4, 78 = 5.09, p = 0.001).

Judging Emotions by Prosody by


Adolescents with ASD

Folia Phoniatr Logop 2014;66:2536


DOI: 10.1159/000363739

TD participants

Autistics

Fig. 1. Mean lexical and prosodic judgment scores (in percent) and

standard errors for baseline stimuli for the 3 groups of TD participants, 68, 915 and 2629 year olds, and the 2 groups of autistic adolescents who study at regular education placement (AA1)
and at special education placement (AA2). *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

loudspeaker was 50 cm (19.5 inches). The procedure was approved by the ethical committees of Tel Aviv University and the
Ministry of Education.

Results

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included 10 lexical neutral words with happy or sad prosody (5


with happy prosody and 5 with sad prosody). The mean duration
of the words with happy prosody (mean = 1,186 ms, SD = 188) and
sad prosody (mean = 1,108 ms, SD = 204) was not significantly different (p > 0.05).
The test was aimed to assess the ability of the participants to
recognize the feeling of the speaker (sad/happy) in congruent and
incongruent lexical-prosodic conditions. The congruent condition included 10 words with happy lexical meaning and happy
prosody, and 10 words with sad lexical meaning and sad prosody.
The incongruent condition included 10 words with happy lexical
meaning and sad prosody, and 10 words with sad lexical meaning
and happy prosody. Overall, the test included a total of 40 recorded words, 20 words with congruent lexical meaning and prosody,
and 20 words with incongruent lexical meaning and prosody. The
mean duration of the words with congruent prosody (mean = 990
ms, SD = 179) and incongruent prosody (mean = 967 ms, SD =
140) was not significantly different (p > 0.05).

**

90

80

80

70

70
60
50
40

10
0

TD participants

AA1

AA2

68

915
Years
TD participants

2629

AA1

AA2

Autistics

Autistics

Fig. 2. Mean lexical and prosodic judgment scores (in percent) and

standard errors for congruent stimuli for the 3 groups of TD participants, 68, 915 and 2629 year olds, and the 2 groups of autistic adolescents who study at regular education placement (AA1)
and at special education placement (AA2). *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

Further multiple comparisons showed a significant difference between the group of adolescents with ASD attending a special school for ASD (AA2) and the adolescents with ASD attending a regular school (AA1; t78 =
3.04, p = 0.03). Also, a significant difference was found
between the group of adolescents with ASD attending
special school (AA2) and TD children aged 915 years
(t78 = 3.34, p = 0.01) as well as with TD adults (t78 = 3.63,
p = 0.005). No differences were found between the 2
groups of TD children and adults, as well as between adolescents with ASD (AA1) and TD children and adults
(p > 0.05).
Congruent and Incongruent Tests
The groups mean percent correct scores for the congruent and incongruent lexical-prosodic words are shown
in figures 2 and 3, respectively.
Figure 2 shows that all 5 groups of participants received high percent correct scores in the congruent lexical
prosodic condition. One-way analysis of variance with
correct judgments as the dependent variable and group of
participants as the independent variable revealed a main
effect for group (F4, 78 = 3.52, p = 0.01). Multiple comparisons (Ryan-Einot-Gabriel-Welsch) suggested a sig30

30

10
2629

40
20

915
Years

**

50

20

68

**

60

30

Lexical judgment
Prosodic judgment

90

Response (%)

Correct response (%)

100

100

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Fig. 3. Mean lexical and prosodic judgment scores (in percent) and
standard errors for incongruent stimuli for the 3 groups of TD participants, 68, 915 and 2629 year olds, and the 2 groups of autistic adolescents who study at regular education placement (AA1)
and at special education placement (AA2). *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01.

nificant difference between the two groups of adolescents


with ASD: those studying in regular schools (AA1) performed significantly better (mean = 98.40, SD = 3.02)
than those in special education (AA2; mean = 92.11,
SD = 10.04; p < 0.05). A significant difference was also
found between AA2 and TD children 915 years old (p <
0.05) and between AA2 and TD adults (p < 0.05). No significant differences were found between AA1 and the 3
groups of TD participants (p > 0.05).
Our next step was to assess how the two groups of adolescents with ASD judge the emotional intent of the
speaker in the incongruent lexical-prosodic condition
compared to typically developing individuals. Figure 3
shows the group average percentages of lexical versus
prosodic judgment across the 5 groups of participants.
Figure 3 shows that the preference for prosodic over
lexical judgments increases with age in TD individuals. It
can be seen that TD children 68 years old did not show
a clear prosodic bias when judging the feeling of the
speaker in a lexical-prosodic incongruent condition.
However, TD children 915 years old and TD adults
showed a tendency for judging the feeling of the speaker
by a clear preference for prosodic over lexical judgment.
Note that Pearson correlation confirmed that age of parSegal/Kaplan/Patael/Kishon-Rabin

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**

Judging Emotions by Prosody by


Adolescents with ASD

Folia Phoniatr Logop 2014;66:2536


DOI: 10.1159/000363739

2,500

Congruent
Incongruent

Reaction time (ms)

2,000
1,500
1,000
500
0

68

915
Years
TD participants

2629

AA1

AA2

Autistics

Fig. 4. Mean reaction time (in milliseconds) and standard errors


for congruent and incongruent stimuli for the 3 groups of TD participants, 68, 915 and 2629 year olds, and the 2 groups of autistic adolescents who study at regular education placement (AA1)
and at special education placement (AA2).

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ticipants in the group of TD children 915 years old was


not associated with their judgment for prosody (p > 0.05)
suggesting a certain homogeneity in performance within
this age group.
It can also be seen that the two groups of adolescents
with ASD differ in their judgment. Those studying in regular schools (AA1) tended more to base their judgment
on prosody (mean = 79.54, SD = 32.13) compared to adolescents with ASD studying in special education (AA2;
mean = 59.65, SD = 33). A series of 1-sample t tests was
performed when prosodic preference in each group was
tested against the null hypothesis of random preference
(null hypothesis = 50%). A significant difference was
found in the groups of TD children 915 years old (t20 =
2.38, p = 0.02), TD adults (t15 = 28.41, p = 0.0001) and
adolescents with ASD studying at regular education settings (AA1; t10 = 3.04, p = 0.01), suggesting that these 3
groups tended to judge incongruent stimuli by prosodic
and not by lexical information. No significant difference
was found in the groups of TD children 68 years old and
adolescents with ASD studying in special education placements (AA2; p > 0.05). Thus, these latter 2 groups of participants did not rely consistently on prosody when judging the feeling of the speaker.

One-way analysis of variance with the difference between lexical and prosodic judgments as the dependent
variable and group of participants as the independent
variable confirmed that the difference between the 5
groups of participants was statistically significant (F4, 78 =
3.60, p = 0.009). Further multiple comparisons (RyanEinot-Gabriel-Welsch) showed that the difference between prosodic and lexical judgments was significantly
increased in TD adults compared to 6- to 8-year-old TD
children (p < 0.05). No other significant differences were
found between the 5 groups.
The mean reaction time in milliseconds for each condition (congruent and incongruent) and group were calculated and shown for the congruent and incongruent
stimuli in figure 4. The figure shows longer reaction times
for the young TD children compared to the other groups
and for the incongruent stimuli compared to the congruent ones.
Two-way analyses with repeated measures (group,
type of stimuli: congruent/incongruent) revealed a main
effect for type (F1, 78 = 22.53, p = 0.0001). In general, reaction time for incongruent stimuli was significantly longer
(mean = 1,252.09 ms, SD = 801) compared to the congruent condition (mean = 1,082.59 ms, SD = 851). Also, a
main effect for group was found (F4, 78 = 25.25, p < 0.0001).
Multiple contrasts revealed that the group of young
TD children (68 years old) had longer reaction times for
both the congruent and incongruent stimuli compared to
the other groups of participants (t78 = 10.15, 11.54, 9.32,
8.58, p = 0.001, for the comparison to TD 925 years old,
TD adults, AA2 and AA1, respectively). No differences in
reaction time were found between TD 915 years old and
adults and between these two groups and the 2 groups of
adolescents with ASD (p > 0.05). No group type interaction was found (p > 0.05).
Correlations between the AQ scores, the Raven Progressive Matrices scores (for age norms) and the judgments by prosody in the incongruent condition were conducted for the 2 groups of participants with ASD pooled
together. Among the possible correlations, the only significant correlation was found between the Raven scores
and prosodic judgment (r = 0.49, 0.51, p = 0.01, for Raven
results in percentiles and standard scores, respectively).
Thus, the results of the Raven test can explain about 26%
of the variance in prosodic judgment in adolescents with
ASD. No correlations were found between age and judgment by prosody in each one of the ASD groups apart or
when pooled together.
To provide better understanding of the factors that
contributed to prosodic preference in adolescents with

Variable

Step 1

Educational
placement
AQ
Nonverbal IQ
Adjusted R2
F

Step 2
2

0.26 7% 1.28

7%
1.63

r2

0.31 6%
1.34
0.24 3%
1.00
0.41 14%
2.07*
23%
3.23*

= Beta weights; r2 = the percentage of explained variation for


each variable; R2 = the percentage of the total variation that is explained by the model. * p 0.05.

autism, multivariate linear regression analysis was computed. Specifically, the regression model included 2 steps.
First, the covariate of school placement as a dummy variable was entered into step 1. In step 2, both nonverbal IQ
(Raven) and AQ scores were added to the models as predictors. Table 2 presents the results for these analyses.
The variables included in the regression predicted a significant proportion of the variability in prosodic preference, with R2 = 0.33, F3, 20 = 3.23, p < 0.05. As shown in
table2, only nonverbal IQ was a significant predictor of
prosodic preference after controlling for school placement variables ( = 0.41, p = 0.05).

Discussion

The findings of the present study demonstrate that


judging the emotion of the speaker in incongruent lexical-prosodic words by giving more weight to prosodic
over lexical information gradually develops through
childhood and adolescence. The present findings are in
agreement with previous limited data on children and
adults presented with incongruent lexical-prosodic sentences [3841]. The present data add to the previous findings described in the literature by showing the same developmental tendency for isolated words that include less
lexical and prosodic redundancy compared to sentences.
Although previous data already assessed the judgment of
conflicting cues in words in typically developing 6-yearolds [53], the present study adds data on additional age
groups across childhood. Since social-interactions in everyday life may include spoken sentences and/or isolated
words, it is important to show that the same developmen32

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tal trends exist for processing both types of stimuli. Furthermore, the evidence demonstrated in the present study
for a developmental change in judging emotions by prosody provides the platform for further interpretation of
the results of the participants with ASD.
Adolescents with ASD were able to accurately perceive
the emotions of the speaker based on lexical or prosodic
information alone. Moreover, when provided simultaneously, in the incongruent condition, both types of information, lexical and prosodic, were processed as evident
by the prolonged reaction time. However, the ability to
give more weight to the prosodic over the lexical information was reduced in the group with severer autistic characteristics studying at a special education placement
(AA2). The present findings will be discussed and elaborated in the remainder of the discussion.
One main finding of the present study suggests that
there is a difference in the way by which the 2 groups of
adolescents with ASD judged the emotional intent of the
speaker in incongruent lexical-prosodic stimuli. Adolescents with ASD who studied at regular schools with less
autistic characteristics (AA1) gave priority to prosodic
over lexical information, whereas adolescents with ASD
who studied at special schools with severer autistic characteristics (AA2) did not show such a clear preference.
This finding is further strengthened by the fact that the
AA1 participants were younger than the AA2 participants but nonetheless showed better performance. The
only study, to our knowledge, that is somewhat comparable to our study is that by Stewart et al. [36]. They
showed reduced ability to rely on prosody for emotional
judgment in HFA adults. In contrast, our study showed
that HFA adolescents at regular schools relied on prosody. The discrepancy between the two studies can be attributed primarily to the differences in stimuli [36]. Stewart et al. [36] used complex emotions in sentences whereas we chose familiar words with 2 basic emotions in the
present study. This allowed us to test adolescents with
ASD with severer autistic characteristics. Indeed, we have
managed to obtain judgment in incongruent conditions
in a group of adolescents with ASD that has not been tested so far with this type of paradigm.
The finding of reduced ability to judge the emotional
state of the speaker by prosody (lexical bias) in the group
of adolescents with ASD who study at special education
placement (AA2) might be clarified by either a domainspecific explanation (ToM) or by a more domain-general
explanation (executive dysfunctions) [54, 55]. The ToM
theory predicts limited ability to recognize and understand the emotional state of the speaker in individuals
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Table 2. Summary of the linear regression model predicting prosodic preference (n = 24)

dividuals to be exposed to more vocal emotional intents


and examples of lexical-prosodic incongruent stimuli.
Such repeated experience may have led to a better emotional understanding. This possibility needs to be confirmed in future studies.
Another interesting finding of the present study is that
adolescents with ASD showed evidence for processing
competing lexical and prosodic information which resulted in prolonged reaction time in the incongruent condition, similarly to TD individuals. The finding that adolescents with severer autistic characteristics (AA2) processed both types of information as the other groups but
did not base their judgment on the real intent of the
speaker by its prosody might be explained by the Weak
Central Coherence theory, which suggests that individuals with ASD are limited in their ability to integrate information and find a global meaning, although their ability
to perceive and process certain aspects of this information is intact [59]. Similarly, the results of AA2 suggest
that they were not limited in their ability to perceive and
process the lexical and prosodic information in the stimuli. They were, however, constrained in their ability to
override prosodic over lexical information for extracting
the intent of the speaker.
In sum, the present study provides insight into the
process of emotional understanding in TD and ASD subjects in cases when there is a conflict between the content
of words and their prosody. By targeting the judgment of
participants with ASD with conflicting stimuli, we were
able to go beyond the assessment of separated emotions
to a more realistic and complicated task in which mature
performance requires giving more weight to prosody over
lexical information. Interestingly, the participants with
ASD processed the incongruent stimuli similarly to TD
individuals, but the final judgment of the speakers intent
by the more autistic participants was different and similar
to the very young TD children. These findings suggest
that autistic individuals do not judge the emotional intent
of the speaker in a deviant way compared to TD individuals, but some of them may judge it in a less mature way.
The use of less mature strategies for emotional judgment
was associated with cognitive ability.
The present findings were demonstrated in experimental conditions. Thus, generalization to everyday life
may not be straightforward. However, it is reasonable to
assume that the interpretation of lexical-prosodic incongruent stimuli might be similar or even worse in everyday
life compared to the experimental conditions of the present study. Taking into consideration that everyday social
interactions involve more complex and low-intensity

Judging Emotions by Prosody by


Adolescents with ASD

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DOI: 10.1159/000363739

33

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with ASD because of a basic deficit in the ability to understand emotions, intents and mental states of others [29].
According to this view, the reduced ability observed in
AA2 to accurately judge the intent of the speaker by prosody reflects a specific insufficiency of the neurocomputational system that is associated with ToM. In this view, it
is also possible that young TD children show a lexical bias
in incongruent conditions because of less mature ToM
abilities.
The executive function explanation suggests that individuals with ASD have difficulties in general cognitive
domains including planning, reasoning, self-monitoring,
flexibility of thought and action, holding mental representations in working memory and inhibition [55, 56].
According to this view, difficulties in executive control
and specifically difficulties in inhibition of lexical information may explain the lexical bias of both autistic adolescents (AA2) as well as young TD children [53]. Furthermore, the association found in the present study between nonverbal reasoning (Raven test) and the tendency
for prosodic judgments in adolescents with ASD supports
the notion that domain-general abilities play a role in understanding emotions in incongruent conditions. It is
possible that preference for prosodic judgment in incongruent conditions requires abstract reasoning and problem-solving strategies that are less mature in some adolescents with ASD. Interestingly, cognitive ability played
a role in understanding emotions in incongruent conditions, in spite of the fact that only two basic emotions
were utilized in single words that reduced the burden on
working memory.
Another explanation for the difficulties in judging incongruent lexical-prosodic stimuli by AA2 is related to
conceptual understanding of mixed emotions (e.g. I felt
happy and excited/sad). TD children are able to recognize and understand mixed emotions in themselves and
in others only by late childhood [57, 58]. It is possible that
both AA2 as well as young TD children in the present
study were less advanced in judging emotions in words
that carry simultaneous and conflict emotional meanings
because of less mature conceptual understanding of
mixed emotions in general. Further research, however, is
needed in order to shed light on this issue.
Importantly, however, the present findings suggest
that the ability of adolescents with ASD to give priority to
prosodic over lexical information in incongruent lexicalprosodic conditions is not always impaired. Nevertheless,
it might be influenced by the cognitive abilities of the individual. One cannot exclude the possibility, however,
that studying in a regular school has allowed autistic in-

emotions in both congruent and incongruent lexicalprosodic conditions, and that a quick response from the
listener is required in order to continue the discourse, it
might be the case that individuals with ASD would have
more difficulties in understanding the real intent (or
emotional state) of the speaker [29, 34]. However, further
studies are needed in order to investigate this issue.
From a clinical point of view, it is highly important
that speech and language pathologists will include emotional judgment in congruent and incongruent lexicalprosodic stimuli as part of both their assessment and
treatment of individuals with ASD. Incorporating training of emotional judgment by prosody within the work of
speech and language pathologists who work with autistic
children and adolescents may improve their understanding of others in everyday social interactions.

Acknowledgments
The authors gratefully acknowledge the ASD students and the
staff at Gil school for their support and participation in this study.
We would also like to thank Adi Luber, Einat Beeri and Rommi
Gan undergraduate and graduate students at the Department of
Communication Disorders, Tel Aviv University, for their assistance with stimulus preparation and data collection, and Mrs. Esther Shabtai for assistance with the statistical analysis. This study
was supported by the Fanny Fannister Award from the Sackler
Faculty of Medicine, Tel Aviv University.

Appendix 1

Words associated with


happy meaning

Words associated with


sad meaning

Test part

Words with no association to sad


or happy (neutral words)

Test part

ahav (love)
matan (present)
bdix (joke)
Ser (happiness)
xijx (smile)
kf (fun)
tsxk (laugh)
alz (cheerful)
leitsn (clown)
rikd (dance)
xfeS (freedom)
glda (ice cream)
maksm (charming)
nifl (wonderful)
xibk (hug)

gara (bad)
kiSaln (failure)
pred (separation)
bxi (crying)
tsar (sorrow)
r (bad)
rv (quarrel)
dim (tear)
kev (pain)
yeS (despair)
hefsd (loss)
neS (punishment)
kas (anger)
ptsa (wound)
xol (sick)

baseline 1
baseline 1
baseline 1
baseline 1
baseline 1
test
test
test
test
test
test
test
test
test
test

mek (valley) (happy prosody)


gamd (dwarf) (happy prosody)
ritsp (floor) (happy prosody)
sulm (ladder) (happy prosody)
Srafrf (stool) (happy prosody)
binyn (building) (sad prosody)
migdl (tower) (sad prosody)
krka (ground) (sad prosody)
sev (weed) (sad prosody)
amd (pillar) (sad prosody)
mek (valley) (happy prosody)

baseline 2
baseline 2
baseline 2
baseline 2
baseline 2
baseline 2
baseline 2
baseline 2
baseline 2
baseline 2
baseline 2

34

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List of Words for the Baselines and Test

Appendix 2
Measurements of F0, minimum F0 and maximum F0

F0 mean
F0 min.
F0 max.
Range

Baseline 1:
words with neutral
prosody
(n = 10)

Baseline 2:
words with happy
prosody
(n = 5)

Baseline 2:
words with
sad prosody
(n = 5)

Test items:
words with happy
meaning and
happy prosody
(n = 10)

Test items:
words with sad
meaning and happy
prosody
(n = 10)

Test items:
words with sad
meaning and
happy prosody
(n = 10)

Test items:
words with
happy meaning
and sad prosody
(n = 10)

166.96
(10.70)
140.92
(15.94)
197.79
(10.80)
56.87
(19.11)

226.44
(15.53)
159.75
(6.98)
312.34
(36.72)
152.59
(40.55)

251.62
(20.60)
195.78
(35.13)
318.53
(37.38)
122.75
(61.57)

271.71
(54.19)
179.24
(32.72)
386.66
(98.87)
207.42
(101.40)

277.47
(67.98)
159.74
(32.33)
426.07
(137.94)
266.34
(133.73)

255.23
(21.28)
188.36
(40.87)
340.07
(37.79)
151.71
(59.85)

231.14
(60.50)
161.32
(48.67)
303.18
(52.21)
141.86
(50.28)

Range = (maximum F0 minimum F0); n = number of words. Measurements in hertz in the stimuli of baseline 1 (lexical judgment),
baseline 2 (prosodic items) and test items. Standard errors are shown in parentheses.

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