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Beyond words: how do children with ADHD and/or conduct problems process nonverbal information about affect?

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  • 1Brain and Behavior Research Program, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Canada.



To study nonverbal social cue perception in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD; n = 86), conduct problems (CP; n = 24), or both disorders (ADHD + CP; n = 63), as well as normal controls (n = 27).


Using a standardized test of receptive nonverbal processing abilities, participants were required to interpret emotional cues from pictures of facial expressions and recordings of voices.


As predicted, children with CP and ADHD were significantly less accurate at interpreting emotions than normal controls. However, children with CP and ADHD differed in the type of errors made: the ADHD group's errors were generally random in nature, whereas the CP group tended to misinterpret emotions as anger. Contrary to our hypothesis, the ADHD + CP group performed better than the ADHD and CP groups, was as accurate as the control group, and displayed a unique pattern of errors.


These results support the idea that social deficiencies associated with CP arise from a biased perception of emotion, whereas social problems in ADHD originate from a failure to attend to the appropriate cues of affect. The findings also support the theory that comorbid ADHD + CP is a distinct disorder.

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