Reduced differentiation of emotion-associated bodily sensations in autism

Eleanor R. Palser*, Alejandro Galvez-Pol, Clare E. Palmer, Ricci Hannah, Aikaterini Fotopoulou, Elizabeth Pellicano, James M. Kilner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
34 Downloads (Pure)


Differences in understanding emotion in autism are well-documented, although far more research has considered how being autistic impacts an understanding of other people’s emotions, compared to their own. In neurotypical adults and children, many emotions are associated with distinct bodily maps of experienced sensation, and the ability to report these maps is significantly related to the awareness of interoceptive signals. Here, in 100 children who either carry a clinical diagnosis of autism (n = 45) or who have no history of autism (n = 55), we investigated potential differences in differentiation across autistic children’s bodily maps of emotion, as well as how such differentiation relates to the processing of interoceptive signals. As such, we measured objective interoceptive performance using the heartbeat-counting task, and participants’ subjective experience of interoceptive signals using the child version of the Body Perception Questionnaire. We found less differentiation in the bodily maps of emotion in autistic children, but no association with either objective or subjective interoceptive processing. These findings suggest that, in addition to previously reported differences in detecting others’ emotional states, autistic children have a less differentiated bodily experience of emotion. This does not, however, relate to differences in interoceptive perception as measured here.

Lay abstract: More research has been conducted on how autistic people understand and interpret other people’s emotions, than on how autistic people experience their own emotions. The experience of emotion is important however, because it can relate to difficulties like anxiety and depression, which are common in autism. In neurotypical adults and children, different emotions have been associated with unique maps of activity patterns in the body. Whether these maps of emotion are comparable in autism is currently unknown. Here, we asked 100 children and adolescents, 45 of whom were autistic, to color in outlines of the body to indicate how they experienced seven emotions. Autistic adults and children sometimes report differences in how they experience their internal bodily states, termed interoception, and so we also investigated how this related to the bodily maps of emotion. In this study, the autistic children and adolescents had comparable interoception to the non-autistic children and adolescents, but there was less variability in their maps of emotion. In other words, they showed more similar patterns of activity across the different emotions. This was not related to interoception, however. This work suggests that there are differences in how autistic people experience emotion that are not explained by differences in interoception. In neurotypical people, less variability in emotional experiences is linked to anxiety and depression, and future work should seek to understand if this is a contributing factor to the increased prevalence of these difficulties in autism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1321–1334
Number of pages14
Issue number5
Early online date22 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2021


  • autism
  • emotion
  • interoception


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