Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 48, Issue 11, pp 3885–3898 | Cite as

Response to Distress Varies by Social Impairment and Familiarity in Infants at Risk for Autism

  • Alexandra C. DowdEmail author
  • Kassandra Martinez
  • Bridget C. Davidson
  • J. Gregory Hixon
  • A. Rebecca Neal-Beevers
Original Paper


Early impaired response to social partners’ distress may negatively impact subsequent social development. Identifying factors contributing to successful responding may inform assessment and intervention. This study explores how: (1) social impairment, and (2) partner familiarity relate to response to partners’ distress. Infants with and without older siblings with ASD were assessed at 12 (n = 29) and 15 (n = 35) months for social impairment markers, and responses to mother and experimenter each feigning distress. Infants with more social impairment showed less attention and affect at 15, but not 12 months. Infants attended more to the unfamiliar person, but exhibited greater affect toward the familiar person at 12 months. Results revealed social impairment and familiarity were separately related to infant response to partners’ distress.


Response to distress Social impairment Autism spectrum disorder Empathy Familiarity Social spectrum 


Author Contributions

Alexandra C. Dowd conceived of the theoretical approach to examining the data, was the gold-standard reliability coder, processed the experimental data, performed the analyses, interpreted the findings, designed the figures and tables, and took the lead in writing the manuscript. Dr. A. Rebecca Neal-Beevers supervised the project, provided critical feedback on the theoretical approach, aided in interpreting the results, and helped author and shape the manuscript. Kassandra Martinez helped identify nuances for the behavioral coding scheme for response to distress, behaviorally coded response to distress after reliability was established, drafted the initial methods section, and reviewed the manuscript. Dr. Bridget C. Davidson designed and directed the larger research project that this project extracts from, and she performed the experiments. Dr. J. Gregory Hixon contributed to the design of the analytic approach, supervised the analyses, and provided feedback on the manuscript.


This study was funded by Institutional Research Funds provided by the authors’ university.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

10803_2018_3653_MOESM1_ESM.docx (59 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 59 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alexandra C. Dowd
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kassandra Martinez
    • 1
  • Bridget C. Davidson
    • 2
  • J. Gregory Hixon
    • 3
  • A. Rebecca Neal-Beevers
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyThe University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA
  2. 2.Department of Pediatrics, Mailman Center for Child DevelopmentUniversity of Miami, Miller School of MedicineMiamiUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyThe University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA

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