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Prosody and masking: Women on the spectrum, Sten Knutsen(Department of Psychology, Rutgers University)

Thursday, March 09, 2023, 05:00pm

Rutgers Psychology Department, 152 Frelinghuysen Rd, Busch campus, room 333

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Abstract: Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by atypical interests, body movements, social interactions, and communication (APA, 2013). Some people with ASD have difficulty using prosody to convey subtle emotions (Ornitz & Ritvo, 1976) and have incorrect stress placement (Simmons & Baltaxe 1975). Sometimes people with ASD attempt to camouflage or “mask” outward signs of their ASD. Masking techniques include attempting to reduce body movements and mirroring another person’s expressions or intonation (Cook et. al, 2022). Although both men and women with ASD can engage in behavioral masking, the practice is reportedly more common in women (Hull, 2017). To date, no research has investigated whether there are sex differences in prosodic masking among people with ASD. The current study addresses this hole in the literature. 

Based on previous research, we expected that women would outperform men on prosody tests, and that participants who were neurotypical (NT) would outperform people with ASD. If women with ASD prosodically mask more than men with ASD, the ASD-NT difference in prosody should be smaller for women than men. Further, this sex difference should be more apparent in production than comprehension, particularly when prosody is used for pragmatic purposes. We tested these predictions in a study with 118 college students. We found ASD women performed just as well as NT women, whereas ASD men performed much worse than NT men, supporting the hypothesis that women with ASD engage in prosodic masking more than men with ASD. The fact that this sex difference is only seen for contrastive stress production and not contrastive stress comprehension is consistent with prosodic masking being a public-facing compensatory display, and not simply that women with ASD are better at contrastive stress then men with ASD.

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