Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)




Cheryl Dickter

Committee Member

Cheryl Dickter

Committee Member

Josh Burk

Committee Member

Jennifer Stevens


The autism spectrum may extend into the general population, as previous work has suggested that there is a normal distribution of subclinical autistic traits among neurotypical individuals. Individuals with high levels of autistic traits display interpersonal challenges that are qualitatively similar to those exhibited by individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In ASD, social challenges may be mediated by differences in social cognition. The current study investigated to what extent social cognitive differences exist between individuals with high and low levels of subclinical autistic traits. Participants were 171 undergraduate students who scored high or low on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). Differences were found between High AQ and Low AQ participants along several social cognitive and behavioral dimensions. High AQ participants reported higher levels of social anxiety and fewer daily conversations than Low AQ participants. Accuracy on a Theory of Mind task was lower in High AQ than Low AQ participants, but only when stimulus eye gaze was averted. Patterns of preferential attention to faces also varied between High AQ and Low AQ participants, contingent on configural and temporal factors. Low AQ participants exhibited a stronger attentional preference for upright faces versus cars and inverted faces at 100ms. When a competing car stimulus was presented, High AQ participants preferentially attended to faces more strongly than did Low AQ participants at 200ms and 500ms. Inverted face distractor stimuli elicited a stronger attention bias to upright faces by Low AQ than High AQ participants at 500ms. Emotion complexity did not differentially affect preferential attention to faces between the two groups. These results build on previous literature by characterizing specific patterns of social cognitive processing differences associated with subclinical autistic traits. KEYWORDS: autism spectrum disorder, social cognition, face processing



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