Not Knowing What I Feel: Emotional Empathy in ASD

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
E. Trimmer1, S. McDonald2 and J. A. Rushby3, (1)University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia, (2)Psychology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, (3)University of New South Wales, UNSW, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Background:  Empathy can be defined as “natural tendency to share and understand the emotions and feelings of others in relation to oneself” (Jean Decety & Meyer, 2008, p. 1053). Empathy involves both a cognitive (understanding other’s intentions and meaning) and an emotional (feeling what another person is feeling) component. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been shown to have difficulties with cognitive empathy and perspective taking. Less is known about emotional empathy in these individual and the present literature is inconsistent.

Objectives: This study examines the emotional empathy of individuals with ASD whilst watching emotionally-driven stimuli.

Methods:  Twenty-four individuals aged 16 or older (22 males; mean age 28 years) with a diagnosis of ASD and 25 matched controls (21 males, mean age 27) watched a series of five emotionally distressing film clips and five non-emotional clips. Participants then rated their mood and level of arousal on a 9-point Likert scale. Skin conductance was recorded as a measure of arousal along with corrugator EMG as a measure of emotion expression.  

Results:  No significant differences were found between groups for either of the psychophysiological measures indicating comparable physiological responding. Participants with ASD rated less negative mood to the emotional clips than control participants indicating a flattening of self-report affect, whereas self-reported arousal was similar between groups.

Conclusions:  Whilst individuals with ASD appear to experience similar levels of physiological responding to emotionally-driven stimuli, they appear to interpret this response as having less emotional salience than controls. This has significant implications for understanding empathy impairments in the ASD population.