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Keywords:

  • autism;
  • empathy;
  • story-telling;
  • narrative;
  • verbal ability;
  • moral cognition;
  • film

Abstract

People with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have difficulties with mentalizing, empathy, and narrative comprehension. A new test of social and narrative cognition, the Moral Dilemmas Film Task, was developed to probe individuals' spontaneous understanding of naturalistic film scenes. Twenty-eight individuals with ASC and 28 neurotypical controls, matched for age, sex, and IQ, watched four short emotionally charged film clips each depicting a moral dilemma, and were asked to write about what they had seen. Individuals with ASC produced significantly shorter film-based narratives and showed a smaller bias for mental states over objects in their narratives than controls. A significant correlation was found between verbal IQ and the level of mentalizing in film narratives for the ASC group, but not the control group, while the reverse pattern was found with a measure of self-reported cognitive and affective empathy. These results suggest that to the extent that both groups succeed in viewing moral dilemmas in terms of mental content, they do so in different ways, with individuals with ASC using verbal scaffolding to increase their ability to draw meaning from social scenes. The well-established empathy deficit in ASC extends to spontaneous interpretation of moral dilemmas. This new film task has the potential to assay different aspects of how the social world is represented differently in ASC, including during moral comprehension.