Several neurocognitive theories have been put forward to explain autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, the specificity of executive cognitive, motivational (i.e., reward-related), and emotion-recognition impairments in ASD, and the role of early language delay in these impairments remain largely unclear.
This study aimed to examine executive cognitive, motivational, and emotion-recognition functions while considering the potential effect of language delay in ASD.
Twenty-two adolescents with high-functioning ASD (20 males) and 22 typically developing (TD) adolescents (16 males) aged 11-18 years were recruited. Each completed seven computerized tasks measuring executive cognitive (i.e., set-shifting, inhibition, updating, and access/generativity), motivational (i.e., flexible reinforcement learning and affective decision-making), and emotion-recognition functions (i.e., facial emotion recognition).
We found that ASD participants with early language delay (n = 10) had poorer executive cognitive, motivational, and emotion-recognition functioning than TD controls, and had poorer executive cognitive and motivational functioning than ASD participants without language delay (n = 12). ASD participants without language delay only had poorer emotion recognition than TD controls.
These preliminary findings suggest impairments in executive cognitive and motivational functions as well as emotion recognition in ASD with language delay, and impairment only in emotion recognition in ASD without language delay. They implicate a potential partial distinction in mental abilities between ASD with and without early language delay, highlighting the importance of considering language delay when evaluating executive cognitive and motivational functions in ASD.
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