Empathy in autism spectrum conditions
The ARC began work in this area by studying 'theory of mind' (ToM) deficits in autism and Asperger Syndrome. ToM is the ability to attribute mental states to others, to infer what someone else is thinking or feeling. It is one of the two major components of empathy, sometimes known as 'cognitive empathy'. The other major component is known as 'affective empathy', or the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to someone else's mental states. Our work is showing that in Asperger Syndrome it is primarily cognitive empathy that is impaired, whilst affective empathy is intact. In classic autism, both components of empathy may be impaired. We study the cognitive component using tests of emotion recognition and mental state inference. We study the affective component using measures of arousal (heart rate, galvanic skin response) and using questionnaires such as the Empathy Quotient (EQ). We have developed different versions of the EQ for different age groups. Although a psychological construct, we are also relating measures of empathy to brain activity using fMRI, genetic polymorphisms, and prenatal hormone levels. We have also developed novel teaching methods for helping cognitive empathy to develop, using educational software and children's animation. Finally, we are testing the relationship between empathy, alexythymia, and self-awareness, using methods from experimental psychology.