Objectives: In this study, we examine the role of empathy on social skills and communication skills in individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in hopes of better understanding how individuals diagnosed with ASD perform in social environments. We hypothesized that empathy will be predictive of social skills and communication skills in individuals with ASD, but not for typically developing (TD) individuals.
Methods: Our sample consisted of 34 participants (17 ASD, 17 TD), 8-21 years old (27 male, 7 female). Participants were matched on age (ASD mean age = 12.00 years (SD= 2.76); TD mean age = 12.18 years (SD= 3.13)) and Full Scale IQ (ASD Mean = 109.18, SD =14.29; TD Mean=108.71, SD=23.05). Social and communication adaptive functioning was measured through parent report using the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales, Second Edition (VABS-II; Sparrow et al., 2005) and the Behavior Assessment System for Children, Second Edition (BASC-2; Kamphaus & Reynolds, 1998). Participants 16 years and older completed the self-report version of the Empathy Quotient (Baron-Cohen et al., 2004), and the parent-report version was used for participants 15 years and younger (Auyeung et al., 2009); z-scores were calculated for each using the appropriate norms. Range of scores obtained for all measures was adequate in each group.
Results: Linear regression indicated that empathy is predictive of socialization as measured by the VABS-II for the ASD group, accounting for 19% of the overall variance in socialization (β=.49, p=.047). This relationship was not significant for the TD group (β=.45, p=.069), although it showed a trend towards significance. Similarly, empathy is predictive of social skills as measured by the BASC for the ASD group, accounting for 27% of the overall variance in social skills (β=.60, p=.020). This relationship is not significant for the control group (β=.26, p=.32). Linear regressions indicated that empathy is not predictive of communication skills measured by VABS-II and BASC for the ASD group (β=.38, p=.138 and β=.22, p=.388, respectively) nor for the TD group (β=.27, p=.298 and β=.39, p=.184, respectively).
Conclusions: Consistent with our hypothesis, empathy was predictive of social skills and socialization in our ASD group, but not the control group. This suggests that the ability to understand the emotions and behaviors of others is a critical skill for successful social interaction, and individuals with ASD who have poorly developed empathy skills have greater difficulties in everyday social interactions. Contrary to our hypothesis, empathy was not predictive of functional communication. This may reflect the broad measure of communication skills, beyond pragmatic skills such as conversation abilities that may be selectively related to empathy.
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See more of: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Phenotype