Moral Identity and Perceptions of Moral Exemplars in Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
A. K. Senland, Psychology, Trinity College, Hartford, CT
Background: The popular press and social media often contribute toward a stereotype of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as lacking empathy and morality (“Myth of the Autistic Shooter,” 2015). While individuals with ASD can distinguish moral from conventional transgressions (Shulman et al., 2012), compared to their typically developing (TD) peers, they experience subtle difficulties on more advanced moral tasks requiring the interpretation of others’ intentions (Mathersul et al., 2013), and have less advanced moral reasoning (Senland & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2016). However, little is known about whether individuals with ASD and their TD peers differ in the degree to which they hold moral concerns such as caring and justice as central to their sense of self (moral identity) and in who they perceive as being highly moral and why (moral exemplars).

Objectives: This study aimed to investigate similarities and differences in moral identity and identification of moral exemplars between young adults aged 18 to 39 with ASD and their TD peers.

Methods: The ASD group included 83 participants, aged 18 to 39-years-old (83% female); the TD group included 69 participants, aged 18 to 39-years-old (87% female). The ASD group scored significantly higher than the TD group on Hoekstra et al.’s (2001) abridged version of the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ-Short) (t(145) = 11.32, p < .001), confirming two distinct groups characterized this study’s sample. Participants completed an online questionnaire that included: (a) two measures of moral identity, and (b) two open-ended questions, adapted from Walker et al. (1999), which asked participants to 1) name a person that they regarded as highly moral and 2) explain why they regarded this person as highly moral. Qualitative data were analyzed with inductive content analysis.

Results: ASD and TD groups did not differ significantly on either moral identity measure. Qualitative data indicated that compared to the TD group, the ASD group was more likely to identify moral exemplars who were fictional characters (e.g., book, movie, video game characters) or whom they had learned about but did not know personally (e.g., historical figures, political figures, religious figures). In contrast, the TD group was more likely to identify moral exemplars who they knew personally (e.g., parents, friends). Similar themes emerged as the ASD and TD groups explained why they considered their moral exemplars to be highly moral; both groups emphasized the kind/caring, honest, generous, fair/just, and/or accepting nature of their moral exemplars.

Conclusions: ASD and TD groups are similar in their perceptions of how important moral concerns such as fairness and caring are to their sense of self, combating the tendency for the popular press and social media to stereotype those with ASD as immoral. Moral and character education programs, as well as support programs for those with ASD, may also want to consider how to effectively use fictional characters, as well as historical figures, political figures, and religious figures, as moral role models for individuals with ASD, given that those with ASD more readily identified individuals in these categories as moral exemplars than their TD peers did.