An Examination of Prosocial Behaviors in Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorders

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
H. Van Etten and L. J. J. Carver, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA
Background: Past research has provided insight into the development of prosocial behaviors in typically developing children, but surprisingly little research has been done examining this behavior in children with ASD. To engage in prosocial acts, one must be aware of subtle social cues that indicate prosocial behaviors are warranted, as well as be motivated and have the necessary means to accomplish these behaviors (Dunfield, Kuhlmeir, O’Connell, & Kelley 2011). As children with ASD display social communication deficits – specifically impairments in social motivation and difficulty interpreting social cues – engaging in prosocial behavior may prove difficult. Surprisingly little research has been done examining this social behavior, though a few studies have found decreased levels of helping and sharing in children with ASD measured in experimental tasks (Travis, Sigman, & Ruskin, 2001; Dunfield, O’Connel, Kuhlmeier, & Kelley, 2012), and caregiver report (Iizuka et al. 2010; Jones and Fredrickson, 2010; Russel et al. 2012). Previous differences in prosociality between typically developing children and those with ASD may be attributed to differences in the ability to recognize and interpret social cues.

Objectives: The aim of this study is to examine how and if children with ASD respond to social cues indicting an opportunity to engage in prosocial behaviors, and whether this response differs from typically developing children. Additionally, as no previous studies combined parent-report measures of prosocial behaviors with experimental data, this study is the first of its kind to do so.

Methods: Caregivers filled out questionnaires to assess for Autism symptomology (AQ) and difficulties in prosocial behaviors (SDQ). Typically developing children and children with ASD, aged four-and-a-half to six-years old, engaged in a variety of naturalistic tasks that were designed to elicit prosocial behaviors, specifically helping and sharing. In each task, children were exposed to progressively explicit cues (ranging from eye gaze shifts to verbal prompts) indicating that prosocial behaviors were warranted. Additionally, children engaged in a structured sticker-sharing task to further examine sharing behaviors. 

Results:  75% of children helped the experimenter and 38% shared with the experimenter during naturalistic prosocial tasks. During the sticker-sharing task, typically developing children shared on average 49% of their stickers with another child. Results of the caregiver questionnaire indicated that all children displayed typical levels of prosocial behaviors and no children were reported as displaying significant Autistic traits. We predict that the children with ASD will show lower levels of helping and sharing behavior in the prosocial scenarios, will require more explicit cues, and will be less likely to engage in sharing on the sticker task.

Conclusions: Understanding if the inability to respond appropriately to social cues impacts children with ASD can have important implications for future prosocial therapies. Therapies may be able to target prosocial skills through slowly decreasing the reliance on explicit cues. Additionally, as engaging in these behaviors are an important aspect of peer relationships, improving prosocial behaviors in children with ASD can help in the formation of these relationships.