Aims: To test the different components of empathy in autism
Background: The ARC began work in this area by studying ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) difficulties in autism. 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.
Method: We use questionnaires such as the Empathy Quotient (EQ). We have developed different versions of the EQ for different age groups. We study the cognitive component using tests of emotion recognition and mental state inference, including the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET). We are also relating measures of empathy to brain activity using fMRI, and testing its genetic associations, and its correlation with prenatal hormone levels. We have also developed novel teaching methods for helping cognitive empathy to develop, using educational software and children’s animation. We are also looking at the “double empathy problem” – the finding that autistic people are able to effectively attribute mental states to other autistic people, and that non-autistic people find this difficult to do.
Results: We find that in autistic people, it is primarily cognitive empathy that is impaired, whilst affective empathy is intact. In autistic people with intellectual disability, both components of empathy may be impaired. fMRI studies reveal distinct brain regions associated with cognitive empathy, and our genetic studies show significant genetic associations with scores on the EQ and on the RMET. We have recently developed a new measure of cognitive empathy, called the Reading the Mind in the Faces Test (RMFT) which we are currently evaluating in autistic and typical individuals.
Importance: This line of research helps to quantify empathy and to understand the biological and psychological determinants of empathy.
Relevance: This work has already led to empathy teaching (using DVDs) and to clinical application.
Funding: The Autism Research Trust; the Shirley Foundation; the Department of Culture, Media and Sport
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