Background: Reward processing has been proposed to underpin atypical social behavior, a core feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, previous neuroimaging studies have yielded inconsistent results regarding the specificity of atypicalities for social rewards in ASD. Utilizing a large sample, we aimed to assess altered reward processing in response to reward type (social, monetary) and reward phase (anticipation, delivery) in ASD. Methods: Functional magnetic resonance imaging during social and monetary reward anticipation and delivery was performed in 212 individuals with ASD (7.6-30.5 years) and 181 typically developing (TD) participants (7.6-30.8 years). Results: Across social and monetary reward anticipation, whole-brain analyses (p<0.05, family-wise error-corrected) showed hypoactivation of the right ventral striatum (VS) in ASD. Further, region of interest (ROI) analysis across both reward types yielded hypoactivation in ASD in both the left and right VS. Across delivery of social and monetary reward, hyperactivation of the VS in individuals with ASD did not survive correction for multiple comparisons. Reward type by diagnostic group interactions, and a dimensional analysis of autism trait scores were not significant during anticipation or delivery. Levels of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms did not affect reward processing in ASD. Conclusions: Our results do not support current theories linking atypical social interaction in ASD to specific alterations in processing of social rewards. Instead, they point towards a generalized hypoactivity of VS in ASD during anticipation of both social and monetary rewards. We suggest that this indicates attenuated subjective reward value in ASD independent of social content and ADHD symptoms.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience