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Emotional processing of ironic vs. literal criticism in autistic and non-autistic adults: Evidence from eye-tracking

Barzy, Mahsa, Filik, Ruth, Williams, David, Ferguson, Heather J. (2020) Emotional processing of ironic vs. literal criticism in autistic and non-autistic adults: Evidence from eye-tracking. Autism Research, 13 (4). pp. 563-578. ISSN 1939-3792. E-ISSN 1939-3806. (doi:10.1002/aur.2272) (KAR id:79552)


Typically developing (TD) adults are able to keep track of story characters’ emotional states online while reading. Filik et al. (2017) showed that initially, participants expected the victim to be more hurt by ironic comments than literal, but later considered them less hurtful; ironic comments were regarded as more amusing. We examined these processes in autistic adults, since previous research has demonstrated socio-emotional difficulties among autistic people, which may lead to problems processing irony and its related emotional processes despite an intact ability to integrate language in context. We recorded eye movements from autistic and non-autistic adults while they read narratives in which a character (the victim) was either criticised in an ironic or a literal manner by another character (the protagonist). A target sentence then either described the victim as feeling hurt/amused by the comment, or the protagonist as having intended to hurt/amused the victim by making the comment. Results from the non-autistic adults broadly replicated the key findings from Filik et al. (2017), supporting the two-stage account. Importantly, the autistic adults did not show comparable two-stage processing of ironic language; they did not differentiate between the emotional responses for victims or protagonists following ironic vs. literal criticism. These findings suggest that autistic people experience a specific difficulty taking into account other peoples’ communicative intentions (i.e. infer their mental state) to appropriately anticipate emotional responses to an ironic comment. We discuss how these difficulties might link to atypical socio-emotional processing in autism, and the ability to maintain successful real-life social interactions.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1002/aur.2272
Uncontrolled keywords: Language comprehension, irony, sarcasm, perspective, emotion, eye-tracking, autism
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Psychology
Funders: Leverhulme Trust (
Depositing User: Heather Ferguson
Date Deposited: 12 Jan 2020 20:53 UTC
Last Modified: 04 Mar 2024 17:53 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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Barzy, Mahsa.

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Williams, David.

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Ferguson, Heather J..

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