Do Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder Share Fairly and Reciprocally?
Sharing is a crucial foundation of human evolution. The conflict between retaining valued commodities and sharing with others is conventionally assessed via resource-exchange tasks, such as the Ultimatum Game (UG) and Dictator Game (DG). In these tasks, typically developing (TD) children and adults demonstrate preferences for equality and reciprocity, and reject incoming offers they perceive to be unfair. As these behaviours are driven by sensitivity to social norms and awareness of others’ perspectives, there may be significant differences in how children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) share with others. Importantly, failure to share fairly and reciprocally could impact children’s ability to build friendships and increase their risk of bullying.
The objective of this study was to explore how children with ASD and TD children share stickers in age-appropriate versions of the UG and DG. In the ASD group, we expected to observe a weaker preference for equality, reduced reciprocity, and fewer verbal references to fairness.
Participants were 15 children with ASD (M age: 9.2 years) and 18 TD children (M age: 4.3 years) matched on language comprehension (ASD M age: 5.1 years; TD M age: 4.83 years). On different days, children played the UG and DG with a puppet. Each game involved two roles: proposer and recipient (players alternated roles for 4 turns). The proposer received 8 stickers and decided how many to offer the recipient. In the UG, the recipient could accept or reject the proposer’s offer. In the DG, the recipient always accepted the proposer’s offer. In each game, the puppet made one fair offer (4 stickers) and one unfair offer (1 sticker) in a random order, and their responses were randomised in the UG.
Both groups indicated a preference for equality over self-interest in the UG (ASD M offer: 3.31; TD M offer: 3.39), offered significantly fewer stickers in the less socially-strategic DG (ASD M offer: 2.77; TD M offer: 2.75; p = .006), and explicitly referred to fairness at similar rates when making and receiving offers (ps = .17-.64). However, children with ASD were more likely to accept unfair offers than TD children (40% vs 11%; χ2 = 3.77, p = .05) and were less likely to reciprocate the puppet’s offers in both games (p = .04-07). Strikingly, children with ASD reciprocated fair offers at much lower rates in both the UG (ASD: 56%; TD: 93%) and DG (ASD: 50%; TD: 75%).
Although both groups exercised an explicit notion of fairness (as indicated by their offers and comments), ASD impacted children’s ability to evaluate the fairness of others’ offers and to reciprocate accordingly. Crucially, reduced reciprocation of others’ fair behaviour by children with ASD could elicit negative affect in peers and lead to marginalisation, while increased tolerance of unfair behaviour could increase their susceptibility to bullying. Due to deficits in social-cognition and interaction, children with ASD might be increasingly motivated by material outcomes (irrespective of whether they are personally disadvantaged), and less concerned about defending norms associated with positive social-relational outcomes.