Individuals with Autism Share Others’ Emotions: Evidence from the Continuous Affective Rating and Empathic Responses (CARER) Task

Abstract

A new task (‘CARER’) was used to test claims of reduced empathy in autistic adults. CARER measures emotion identification (ability to identify another’s affective state), affective empathy (degree to which another’s affective state causes a matching state in the Empathiser) and affect sharing (degree to which the Empathiser’s state matches the state they attribute to another). After controlling for alexithymia, autistic individuals showed intact affect sharing, emotion identification and affective empathy. Results suggested reduced retrospective socio-emotional processing, likely due to a failure to infer neurotypical mental states. Thus, autism may be associated with difficulties inferring another’s affective state retrospectively, but not with sharing that state. Therefore, when appropriate measures are used, autistic individuals do not show a lack of empathy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Negative scores would indicate ‘excessive’ Affective Empathy, showing that the Empathiser’s reaction to the Target’s affective state is stronger than the Target’s own reaction.

  2. 2.

    When checking for homogeneity of variance using Levene’s test, the variable affective emotion identification was significant at T2. Therefore, findings from the ANCOVA relating to the crucial Group x Story type interaction were re-assessed using the non-parametric Kruskal–Wallis test in JASP (JASP Team, 2019). We calculated a difference score between affective and neutral trials to obtain a single difference score and compared this score between the groups. The results of this analysis showed the same pattern of significance as the ANCOVA results (X2(1) = .2, p = .655).

  3. 3.

    The Levene’s test for the variable emotion identification for affective stories was significant, therefore, the Group x Story type interaction found in the ANCOVA was further assessed with a non-parametric Kruskal–Wallis test. We calculated a difference scores between affective and neutral stories to obtain a single difference score and compared this score between the groups. This analysis supported the ANCOVA results, (X2(1) = 6.88, p = .009).

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Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank Dr Jeffrey M Girard for programming the CARER empathy task and Ella Belfield and Laura Didymus for assistance during early data collection. This work was supported by an Economics and Social Research Council (ESRC) Grant awarded to IS [ES/N00325X/1]. MJB is also supported by an ESRC Grant [ES/R007527/1]. GB is supported by the Baily Thomas Charitable Trust.

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IS, MJB, GB and NSC contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection and analysis were performed by IS, CG and HD. The first draft of the manuscript was written by IS. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Idalmis Santiesteban.

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Santiesteban, I., Gibbard, C., Drucks, H. et al. Individuals with Autism Share Others’ Emotions: Evidence from the Continuous Affective Rating and Empathic Responses (CARER) Task. J Autism Dev Disord (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04535-y

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Keywords

  • Autism
  • Empathy
  • Alexithymia
  • Affect sharing
  • CARER
  • Continuous affective rating