Empathic Response in High-Risk Siblings and Preterm Born Children at the Ages of 24 and 36 Months

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 2, 2019: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
E. Demurie, J. Vermeirsch and H. Roeyers, Department of Experimental-Clinical and Health Psychology, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
Background: Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are impaired in their empathic understanding and responses. When a researcher hurts him/herself, children with ASD show less concern for and awareness of the adult’s distress than typically developing (TD) children (Sigman et al.,1992;Charman et al.,1997). Also high-risk (HR) siblings, later diagnosed with ASD, are less responsive and pay less attention to the other’s distress (e.g.,Hutman et al.,2010). Delays or deficits in emerging empathy thus seem to be an early sign of ASD. Previous studies used global rating scales to qualitatively measure attention and empathic behaviour. To get a more detailed picture of these behaviours, the current study used frequency ratings.

Objectives: To compare the empathic response (ER) of two groups of infants at risk for ASD (HR-siblings, preterm born children (preterms) < 30 weeks gestational age) with low-risk (LR) children (having only TD-siblings) using frequency coding.

Methods: 62 LR-siblings, 47 preterms and 65 HR-siblings participated in an ER-task (based on Sigman et al.,1992) at the ages of 24 and 36 months. Child and researcher were playing with a hammer toy. The researcher pretended to hurt her finger by hitting it with the hammer. Interactions were video-taped and coded by two independent raters for attention and behaviour.

Results: At both ages, children showed more prosocial behaviours after hurting. The total time of social behaviours became shorter, resulting in more time for non-social behaviours after hurting.

At 24M, there was no group difference in the presence of prosocial behaviour (χ2(2)=.166,p=.92). However, more subtle differences could be detected. Group x condition interactions showed that HR-siblings tend to direct their attention away longer than preterms after the hurting occurred (F(2,167)=5.49,p=.005,Δ=.07) and that HR-siblings looked less long to the researcher’s face after hurting than LR-siblings (F(2,167)=5.29,p=.006,Δ=.05). After hurting, HR-siblings also played more with other toys by themselves than LR-siblings (F(2,167)=4.18,p=.016,Δ=.05), and with other toys also involving the researcher than preterms (F(2,167)=3.004,p=.052,Δ=.15). Group differences could be found in latency to looking at the parent’s face (F(2,16)=6.14,p=.010,Δ=.016) and the hammer (F(2,168)=3.89,p=.022,Δ=.05). LR-siblings looked faster to their parent than HR-siblings, while preterms looked later to the hammer compared to HR- and LR-siblings.

At 36M, there was again no group difference in the presence of prosocial behaviour (χ2(2)=.866,p=.649). A significant group x condition interaction (F(2,160)=8.554,p=.000,Δ=.05-06) showed that preterms looked longer to the researcher’s face after hurting than HR- and LR-siblings. There was a trend for a shorter latency until starting to play again in preterms compared to LR-siblings (F(2,159)=2.83,p=.062,Δ=.05).

Conclusions: Although no group differences in prosocial behaviours were detected, the empathic response seemed to be different in a more subtle way in HR-siblings at 24 months, mainly with regard to their attention shifted away from the researcher. The other high-risk group, the preterms, showed an empathic response that was more similar to LR-siblings, highlighting the difference in the social development and ASD-related behaviours of different high-risk groups. At the conference, frequency-coded data will be compared with qualitative ratings and group comparisons based on ASD outcome at 36 months will be presented.