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Abstract

There has been substantial research on children's empathic responsiveness towards distressed people, and on the limited responsiveness of children with autism. To date, however, there have not been experimental studies to test how far children show concern towards someone who might be expected to feel badly, when that person has not (yet) expressed any negative feelings. We tested matched groups of children with autism and learning disability, and typically developing children of similar verbal mental age (approximately 6 years), with a novel procedure in which participants witnessed one person (E1) tearing the drawing of another (E2). In a comparison condition, a blank card was torn. In the torn-drawing condition, as predicted, fewer participants with autism orientated towards E2 with an immediate look, and as a group, they were rated as showing less concern for, and fewer concerned looks towards, E2. We discuss possible implications for theoretical perspectives on the early development of empathy in typically as well as atypically developing children.