Third-Party Sociomoral Evaluations in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 3, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
T. Li1, J. Decety2,3, X. Hu4, J. Li5,6, J. Lin7 and L. Yi1, (1)School of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences and Beijing Key Laboratory of Behavior and Mental Health, Peking University, Beijing, China, (2)Department of Psychology and Child Neurosuite, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, (3)Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, (4)Department of Special Education, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China, (5)Southern China Research Center of Statistical Science, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China, (6)Department of Statistical Science, School of Mathematics and Computational Science, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China, (7)Mental Health Education & Counseling Center, Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou, China

Individuals with ASD have shown preserved abilities in several aspects of moral evaluations (e.g., Blair, 1996; Kretschmer, Lampmann, & Altgassen, 2014), despite their impairments in Theory of Mind (ToM). However, previous findings on moral reasoning in ASD have all built on explicit verbal evaluations of morally-laden scenarios, while the implicit processing underlying them remains undiscovered.


The current study investigates both implicit and explicit processes of third-party moral transgressions using eye tracking in children with ASD and typically developing (TD) controls. We aim to provide new evidence for implicit and explicit moral reasoning in children with ASD in terms of their understanding and sensitivity to the perpetrator’s intention, as well as atypical patterns of responses, especially for scenarios involving intentional damage to objects.


We modified the moral reasoning task from that created by Decety and colleagues (2012). The paradigm included four experimental conditions and one control condition. A total of four scenarios for the experimental conditions were depicted as follows: (a) a person (perpetrator, the initiator of the action) damaging an object intentionally (object-intentional, OI); (b) a person damaging an object accidentally (object-accidental, OA); (c) a person (perpetrator) hurting another person (victim) intentionally (person-intentional, PI); and (d) a person damaging another person accidentally (person-accidental, PA).The control condition depicted people’s daily activities without any pain or damage involved. Each condition consisted of five trials, and each trial consisted of three pictures presented successively to imply actions.

Twenty 4- to 7-year-old children with ASD and nineteen typically-developing controls were shown dynamic visual stimuli depicting intentional or accidental harm to persons or damage to objects. Their eye-movements and pupil dilations were recorded by a Tobii Pro X60 eye tracker. They were asked four questions to evaluate the wrongness of the harmful behavior and the perpetrator performing the actions in each trial, using five-point rating scales.

We defined the fixation durations on the perpetrator and on the victim, with manually drawn areas of interest (AOIs). Children’s verbal evaluation, fixation durations and pupil dilations were compared across group and condition using mixed-design ANOVAs.


We found that (a) children with ASD show implicit processing and autonomic responses to the third-party harms in their eye movements and pupil dilation; (b) children with ASD demonstrated a spared ability to process the intentionality of the perpetrator, reflected by both their explicit evaluations and implicit reactions; and (c) children with ASD showed some abnormal patterns of moral evaluation, especially for the scenarios involving intentional damage to objects.


Our study indicate a preserved capacity to understand the mental states of perpetrators and an implicit moral sensitivity to the third-party harms in children with ASD. Nonetheless, children with ASD show specific sensitivity and emotional arousal when viewing damage to objects. These findings contribute to the understanding of the underlying mechanisms of moral reasoning in ASD, and its possible association with the autistic symptoms.