How Can We Assess the Broader Autism Phenotype More Systematically? Insights from a Multiple Measure Study

Friday, May 12, 2017: 12:00 PM-1:40 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
A. Riccio1, S. K. Kapp2, N. Najjar Daou3, Y. Nishio4 and K. Gillespie-Lynch5, (1)Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), New York, NY, (2)College of Social Sciences and International Studies, University of Exeter, Exeter, United Kingdom, (3)American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon, (4)Graduate School of Human Development and Environment, Kobe University, Kobe, Japan, (5)Department of Psychology, College of Staten Island; CUNY Graduate Center, Brooklyn, NY
Background:  Research examining the Broader Autism Phenotype (BAP), or subclinical autistic traits, among emerging adults suggests that the BAP is characterized by difficulties understanding one’s own and others’ emotions and perspectives, reduced prosocial behavior and emotional intimacy, sensory atypicalities and enhanced creativity (Austin, 2015; Brewer et al., 2015; Best et al., 2015; Gokcen et al., 2014; Jameel et al., 2014; 2015; Jobe & White, 2007). Although most of the aforementioned studies relied upon self-report measures, none of them assessed susceptibility to the social desirability bias. This is problematic because the BAP is associated with reduced understanding of social pretense (Yang & Baillargeon, 2013). In addition, prior research has typically not used a range of measures to determine which characteristics remain associated with the BAP when other characteristics are controlled for or examined if associations are apparent with more than one BAP measure.


  1. To examine if the BAP is associated with reduced social desirability bias.

  2. To obtain a more comprehensive characterization of the BAP using multiple measures.

Methods:  College students (N = 391; 18-25 years old) completed an online survey that included measures of autistic traits, the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) and Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS-2), the sensory subscale of the Ritvo Autism and Asperger Diagnostic Scale, the Basic Empathy Scale, the Toronto Alexithymia Scale, the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, and a Divergent Thinking task. We also examined self-reported prosocial behaviors using scenarios Jameel and colleagues (2014; 2015) developed to demonstrate that heightened autistic traits were associated with reduced self-reported prosocial behaviors across 10 contexts. To avoid carry-over effects, we randomly assigned participants to two groups using a between-subjects research design. Scenarios presented as ambiguous (e.g. help a young man) for one group of participants were presented as clear-cut (help an old lady) for the other group and vice versa.

Results:  The AQ and SRS-2 were positively correlated with each other, r(389)=0.499, p<0.001. Social desirability scores were inversely correlated with the AQ, r(389)=-0.15, p=0.003 and the SRS-2, r(389)=-0.37, p<0.001. In a linear regression predicting AQ scores, reduced cognitive empathy and heightened alexithymia (ps<=0.001) were associated with autistic traits; sensory atypicalities, affective empathy, social desirability, creativity, and prosocial behaviors were unrelated to the BAP. In a linear regression predicting SRS-2 scores, reduced cognitive empathy and social desirability and heightened alexithymia and sensory atypicalities were associated with the BAP (ps <0.001); creativity, prosocial behaviors, and affective empathy were unrelated to SRS-2 scores.

Conclusions:  Findings indicate that reduced social desirability is associated with the BAP but prosocial behaviors are not consistently associated with the BAP. The concurrent measurement of multiple potential BAP constructs provides insights about what is central to the BAP. Difficulty understanding one’s self and others is a consistent aspect of the BAP in emerging adulthood; difficulty understanding others is also part of the BAP among schoolchildren (Tsang et al., 2016). Findings highlight the importance of assessing social desirability and multiple potential aspects of the BAP when using self-report measures.