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The Relationship Between Fantasy and Empathy Among Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
M. K. Kalies1,2, M. M. Wasserman3,4, R. Ellingsen5, J. Hopkins1 and E. Laugeson6, (1)Department of Psychiatry, UCLA PEERS Clinic, Los Angeles, CA, (2)Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, Los Angeles, CA, (3)Pepperdine University, Los Angeles, CA, (4)The Help Group - UCLA Autism Research Alliance, Sherman Oaks, CA, (5)University of California Los Angeles, Venice, CA, (6)UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, Los Angeles, CA
Background: Empathy involves the capacity to recognize, identify, understand, and experience the emotional states of others, and is essential to the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships. Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright (2004) found that those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) exhibit less empathy than typically developing individuals. Several factors may be associated with one’s ability to empathize. In particular, the capacity to fantasize, a form of perspective taking, may be related to empathic ability. For example, Niec and Russ (1996) found that neurotypical children who are better able to engage in fantasy play exhibit greater empathy. While anecdotal reports suggest that many individuals on the autism spectrum, including young adults, participate in fantasy role-playing games (RPGs), the relationship between fantasy and empathy for those with ASD has yet to be examined to our knowledge.

Objectives: This study seeks to examine the relationship between self-reported fantasy and empathy for young adults with ASD. It hypothesized that young adults reporting greater fantasy will demonstrate greater empathic abilities. 

Methods: Thirty-one young adults ranging from 18-27 years of age (M=20.42, SD=2.109) presenting for social skills treatment through the UCLA PEERS®for Young Adults Program participated in the study. Subjects completed baseline measures of empathy prior to treatment including the Empathy Quotient (EQ; Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004) and the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1983). In order to understand the relationship between fantasy and empathy, baseline self-reports on the IRI Fantasy Scale, which measures the tendency to imaginatively transpose oneself into fictional situations, were correlated with the EQ subscales of Cognitive Empathy Emotional Reactivity, and Social Skills using Pearson Correlations. 

Results:   Preliminary results reveal that higher self-reported baseline Fantasy Subscale scores on the IRI are significantly correlated with higher self-reported baseline Emotional Reactivity Subscale scores on the EQ (p<.05), which measures personal reactions to others’ mental states.  No correlations between the EQ subscales of Cognitive Empathy and Social Skills were observed with the IRI Fantasy Subscale scores. 

Conclusions: Preliminary findings suggest support for the original hypothesis in that young adults who self-report greater use of fantasy also exhibit greater empathy through their personal reactions to the mental states of others. These findings are important in that they suggest that those who engage in greater fantasy, perhaps through involvement in activities like live action role-playing (LARPing) or fantasy role-playing games (RPG) like Dungeons and Dragons®, may exhibit greater empathic abilities, thus, potentially fostering more meaningful interpersonal relationships.

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