Objectives: The current study aims to investigate the relation between children’s response to others’ distress and parent/teacher reports of a broad range of social behaviors.
Methods: The sample included 63 individuals with autism aged 33-82 months (M=57.2 months). To evaluate responses to distress displayed by others, children participated in an observational procedure in which an examiner pretended to hit her thumb with a toy hammer and cried audibly for 30 seconds. Duration of child gaze orientation to parent, examiner, and toy was coded from videotape using The Observer (NOLDUS). Two independent observers established inter-observer reliability (ICC≥.88 for all measures). To evaluate a range of social abilities, children’s parents and a familiar teacher were asked to complete one subscale of the PDD Behavior Inventory (PDDBI; Cohen, Schmidt-Lackner, Romanczyk & Sudhalter, 2003). The PDDBI subscale covers a range of social approach behaviors including positive affect, empathy, social imaginative play, and social interaction behaviors. Children were also administered the Mullen Scales of Early Learning (MSEL).
Results: A significant correlation was found between the time children spent gazing at the parent/examiner during the distress paradigm and teacher reports of children’s social behavior (PDDBI), r=.35 (P<.01). This relationship remained significant, even when verbal/nonverbal functioning (MSEL) and chronological age were statistically controlled. No significant correlation was found between parent ratings of children’s social abilities (Parent PDDBI scores) and our measure of children’s responses to others’ distress.
Conclusions: This research suggests that children’s early responses to emotions displayed by others may play an important role in children’s social development.