Date of Award

Fall 12-18-2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Diana L. Robins

Second Advisor

Tricia King

Third Advisor

Erin Tone

Fourth Advisor

David Washburn


The present study investigates the intersection of working memory and emotion recognition in young adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and neurotypical controls. The executive functioning theory of autism grounds key impairments within the cognitive realm, whereas social-cognitive theories view social functioning impairments as primary. Executive functioning theory of ASD has been criticized because executive functioning is too broad and is composed of separable, component skills. In the current study, the focus is narrowed to one of those components, working memory. It has been suggested that executive functioning may play a role in effective social interactions. Emotion recognition is an important aspect of social reciprocity, which is impaired in ASD. The current study investigates this hypothesis by combining working memory and emotion recognition into a single task, the n-back, as a model of social interaction and comparing performance between adults with ASD and controls. A validates set of facial expression stimuli (NimStim) was modified to remove all extraneous detail, and type of emotion was tightly controlled across 1-, 2-, and 3-back conditions. Results include significantly lower accuracy in each of the working memory load conditions in the ASD group compared to the control group, as well as in a baseline, maintenance memory task. The control group's reaction time increased as working memory load increased, whereas the ASD group's reaction time did not significantly vary by n-back level. The pattern of results suggests that the limit for n-back with emotional expressions is 2-back, due to near chance level performance in both groups for 3-back, as well as definitive problems in short term memory for facial expressions of emotion in high-functioning individuals with ASD, in contrast to previous findings of near perfect short term memory for facial expressions of emotion in controls.