Cognitive empathy, or the ability to recognise or infer someone else’s state of mind, appears to be lower in people suffering from Autism, a new Cambridge study suggests.
Autistic men and women score low in empathy tests and do not show the predicted gender differences that are seen in typical men and women, researchers said.
Scientists have published results from the largest ever study of people with Autism taking the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ test, known as an advanced ‘theory of mind’ or empathy test, designed to show subtle individual differences in social sensitivity.
It particularly measures the ‘cognitive’ component of empathy, that is, the ability to recognise or infer someone else’s state of mind.
While typical adults showed the predicted sex difference on this test, with women on average scoring higher than men, in adults with Autism this typical sex difference was absent.
Instead, both men and women with Autism showed an extreme of the typical male pattern on the test, providing strong support for the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of Autism.
This theory predicts that on tests of empathy, typical females will score higher than typical males, who in turn will score higher than people with Autism. The results confirmed this pattern.
Almost 400 men and women with Autism or Asperger Syndrome took the test online, which entails looking at a series of photographs of just the eye region of the face, and picking which of 4 words best describe what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling.
“We are seeing this pattern not just on the Eyes test, but on a number of measures,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge University.
“Future research needs to delve into what is giving rise to this pattern,” said Baron-Cohen.
“This research has the potential to explain why children with Autism, from the earliest point in development, avoid looking at people’s eyes, and become confused in rapidly changing social situations, where people are exchanging glances without words all the time,” said Carrie Allison, Research Manager at the ARC.
“This disability may be both a marker of the early-onset empathy difficulties in Autism and contribute to exacerbating them,” said Allison.
“Teaching children with Autism how to read emotional expressions non-verbally should become an important clinical focus for future research and practice,” said Allison.
“There are substantial individual differences in terms of how well a person with Autism performs on the Eyes’ test, but the social difficulties of both men and women are reflected on their test scores,” said Senior Author Meng-Chuan Lai, also from the ARC.
The study was published in the journal PLoS One.