Conflict of interest statement: C.M.F. served as advisor for Desitin, and was on the speakers list of Novartis during the last 12 months. All other authors have no financial relationships to disclose and declare that they have no conflict of interest.
Empathy in children with autism and conduct disorder: group-specific profiles and developmental aspects
Article first published online: 26 NOV 2011
© 2011 The Authors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry © 2011 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
Volume 53, Issue 6, pages 651–659, June 2012
How to Cite
Schwenck, C., Mergenthaler, J., Keller, K., Zech, J., Salehi, S., Taurines, R., Romanos, M., Schecklmann, M., Schneider, W., Warnke, A. and Freitag, C. M. (2012), Empathy in children with autism and conduct disorder: group-specific profiles and developmental aspects. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53: 651–659. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02499.x
- Issue published online: 16 MAY 2012
- Article first published online: 26 NOV 2011
- Accepted for publication: 12 October 2011 Published online: 26 November 2011
- autism spectrum disorder;
- conduct disorder;
- callous-unemotional traits;
Background: A deficit in empathy is discussed to underlie difficulties in social interaction of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and conduct disorder (CD). To date, no study has compared children with ASD and different subtypes of CD to describe disorder-specific empathy profiles in clinical samples. Furthermore, little is known about age influences on the development of empathic skills. The aim of the current study was to compare cognitive and emotional empathy in different age groups of children with ASD, CD with elevated or low callous-unemotional-traits (CU+ vs. CU−) and a matched control group (CG).
Methods: Fifty-five boys with ASD, 36 boys with CD-CU+, 34 boys with CD-CU− and 67 controls were included. The study implemented three tasks on emotion recognition, perspective taking and emotional affection induced by another person’s situation. Multivariate Analysis of variance with the factors group and age (median split) including their interaction term was performed to describe disorder-specific profiles.
Results: Empathy profiles showed differential impairment in children with ASD and CD-CU+. Boys with ASD were impaired in cognitive empathy while participants with CD-CU+ were impaired in emotional empathy. Children with CD-CU− did not differ from the CG. However, boys with CD-CU− were less emotionally reactive in response to film stimuli than children with ASD. Furthermore, we found strong age effects indicating an increase in cognitive and affective empathic skills beyond early infancy in all groups.
Conclusions: In this study, distinct empathic profiles in children with ASD and CD-CU+ were found. Furthermore, the work demonstrates improvement of empathic skills throughout childhood and adolescence, which is comparable for individuals with psychiatric disorders and control children. These results yield implications for further research as well as for therapeutic interventions.