The Relationship between Social Anxiety, Depression, and Levels of Empathy in Young Adults with ASD
Identification of other people’s emotions through brief emotional expressions can be fundamental to many social processes (Clark, Winkielman, & McIntosh, 2008). Research has shown that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulties with emotion processing regardless of gender and age (Clark, et. al. 2008). Previous research has shown a strong positive relationship between individuals with ASD and associated psychiatric symptoms, specifically depression (Sterling, Dawson, Estes, 2008). Additionally, it has been shown that empathy deficits are correlated with Major Depressive Disorder (Hoffman, Banzhaf, Kanske, Gartner, Bermpohl, & Singer, 2016). A relationship between higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of empathy was also shown in a study examining college students (Deardoff, Kendall, Finch, & Sitarz, 1977). Although this relationship has been studied extensively with typically developing young adults, there has yet to be a thorough exploration of the relationship between social anxiety, depression and empathy in young adults with ASD.
This study seeks to examine the relationship between social anxiety, depression and levels of empathy in cognitively able young adults with ASD. It is hypothesized that young adults reporting higher social anxiety and higher levels of depression will exhibit lower levels of empathy.
Thirty-three young adults ranging from 18 to 27 years of age (M=20.42; SD=2.03) presenting for social skills treatment as part of the UCLA PEERS for Young Adults program participated in this study. In order to examine the relationship between social anxiety, depression and empathy, young adults completed the Social Anxiety Scale (SAS-YA; La Greca, 1999), the Empathy Quotient (EQ; Baron-Cohen & Wheelbright, 2004), and the Major Depression Inventory (MDI-YA; Bech, Rasmussen, Olsen, Noerholm, Abildgaard, 2001) prior to treatment. Pearson correlations were calculated to examine the relationship between ratings of social anxiety on the SAS and levels of depression on the MDI in comparison to levels of empathy on the EQ.
Pearson correlations revealed a significant negative relationship between the Social Skills Subscale of the EQ and social anxiety as measured by the SAS (p<.05). In particular, the Social Skills Subscale of the EQ was negatively correlated with the SAS subscale of Social Avoidance and Distress-General (p<.05), and negatively correlated at trend levels with the SAS subscales of Social Avoidance and Distress-New (p<.10) and Fear of Negative Evaluation (p<.10). The Social Skills Subscale of the EQ was also negatively correlated with depression as measured by the MDI at a trend level (p<.10). There were no significant associations between the other EQ subscales (Cognitive Empathy & Emotional Reactivity) with the SAS or MDI.
Findings support the original hypothesis that young adults reporting higher social anxiety exhibit lower levels of empathy. There also appears to be a relationship between empathy and depression, but this correlation was not significant. These findings are important in that they suggest that the difficulties with empathy that individuals with ASD experience may be exacerbated by symptoms of social anxiety and/or depression.