International Meeting for Autism Research: Emotion Understanding and Empathic Responsiveness In Children with An Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Emotion Understanding and Empathic Responsiveness In Children with An Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Saturday, May 14, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
10:00 AM
C. Dissanayake1, A. Newbigin2 and F. K. Chandler3, (1)La Trobe University, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, Bundoora 3086, (2)Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia, (3)Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, School of Psychological Science, La Trobe University, Bundoora 3083, Victoria, VIC, Australia
Background: The failure to attend to other people’s faces is considered to impact on the ability of children with an ASD to process emotions, which has downstream consequences on emotion understanding and responsiveness. However, although impairments in the realm of emotions have long been considered a key feature of people with an ASD, the findings in the behavioural literature remain mixed.

Objectives: Our aim in the two studies presented here was to investigate emotion understanding and emotion responsiveness (empathy) in children with high-functioning Autistic Disorder (HFA), Aspergers Disorder (AspD) and typically developing (TD) children.

Methods: The sample in Study 1 comprised 21 children with HFA, 19 children with AspD and 20 TD children, aged between 5 – 11 years and matched on overall mental age. The sample in Study 2 included 21 children with HFA and 17 TD children between 8 – 11 years. Children in Study 1 were administered Denham’s (1986) affective labelling and perspective taking task to test emotion understanding, as well as an expressed distress task where the experimenter feigned distress upon accidently hurting her knee. Children in Study 2 were administered a real-apparent emotion task adapted from Dennis et al.(2000) and two emotion responsiveness tasks: Hobson et al.’s (2009) task of anticipatory concern where an experimenter tears up another experimenter’s drawing in the presence of the child, and an expressed distressed task where the experimenter feigned distress at losing her watch. The degree of concern for the experimenter was scored in each empathy task.

Results: Group comparisons in each study failed to reveal differences, with children with an ASD showing equivalent affective perspective taking abilities to the TD children, even on the more difficult real-apparent emotion measure. They also showed equal levels of concern for the experimenter in each of the empathy tasks in comparison to the TD children. Moreover, their expressed concern was greater in situations of anticipated and expressed distress in comparison to control settings where a blank piece of paper was torn rather than the experimenter’s drawing, and when she did not express distress, respectively.  

Conclusions: High-functioning children with an ASD are able to understand and respond to emotions, even to anticipated emotions, in structured situations with adult experimenters, and their levels of understanding and responsiveness do not differ from their TD peers. Furthermore, the children with ASD modulated their empathic response appropriately to the setting, in relation to the experimenters anticipated and expressed emotion, as did TD children, indicating that they are differentially affected by other people’s emotions, and respond accordingly.


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