The influence of music on facial emotion recognition in children with autism and typical children



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The purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of background music on children’s recognition of emotions depicted in photographs of human faces. In individual testing sessions, 30 typically developing children and 20 children with high-functioning autism rated the emotions in 30 photographs while listening to background music intended to convey happiness and again while listening to background music intended to convey sadness. The photographs included 10 examples of happy expressions, 10 examples of neutral expressions, and 10 examples of sad expressions. The 7-point response scale ranged from very sad to very happy. Music listening conditions were counterbalanced. Overall, participants in both groups accurately discriminated among the three categories of photographs, although the variances among ratings in each category were somewhat greater for the participants with autism. A significant two-way interaction revealed that participants’ ratings of happy and neutral faces were unaffected by music conditions, but the sad faces were perceived to be sadder when participants listened to sad music than when they listened to happy music. Across both music conditions, typically developing children rated the happy faces as happier and the sad faces as sadder than did the participants with autism. Response times of the typically developing children were consistently shorter than were the response times of the children with autism, and both groups took longer to rate the sad faces than they took to rate the happy faces. Response times of typically developing children were generally unaffected by the music condition, but children with autism took longer to respond when listening to sad music than when listening to happy music. These results indicate that music may affect perceptions of emotion in children with autism, and that perceptions of sad facial expressions seem to be more affected by background music than are perceptions of happy or neutral faces.