Cognitive and Affective Empathy in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
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Two of the principal components of empathy are cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to take another person’s perspective and understand what they are feeling. Affective empathy is sharing another person’s experience and responding emotionally to that person’s experience. Several studies have demonstrated cognitive empathy deficits in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). What is less clear is whether affective empathy is also impaired in ASD. To investigate this question, ten children with ASD and thirteen typically developing children between the ages of 7 years, 9 months and 13 years, 1 month, were shown video clips of people experiencing either mild pain or psychosocial distress. Following each video clip, children answered six questions taken from Minio-Paluello, Baron-Cohen, Avenanti, Walsh, and Aglioti (2009) that probed how they thought the person in the video felt and how the video made them feel. No significant difference in either affective or cognitive empathy was found between the typically developing group and the ASD group; however, both groups exhibited more cognitive empathy for videos depicting people in pain than for videos depicting people in psychosocial distress. These results suggest that affective empathy is intact in ASD and that brain areas involved in taking the perspective of a person experiencing embarrassment or loss are not fully developed in middle childhood.