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Psychophysiological indicators of empathy, social interaction, and attention in children with autism Kostaras, Demetra

Abstract

Individuals with autism do not seem to respond to social situations, especially situations that, in individuals of typical development, elicit an empathic response. This study was designed to determine if heart rate could provide a means of investigating whether the social disturbance in autism is associated with specific empathy processes, general social interaction processes, or with general attention processes. Ten young male children with autism and 10 young male children of typical development (chronological age between 3-6.5 years) served as participants. The children were exposed to three auditory tones (a cry, a laugh, and a tone), while their heart rate was measured. The experiment took place in each child's home. There were three between group hypotheses formulated. If the two groups responded differently to all three stimuli, the inference would be that the children with autism have a general attention abnormality. Secondly, if the two groups differed in response to the cry and laugh stimuli but not to the tone, the inference would be that children with autism are responding differentially to stimuli that are social in nature. Finally, if children with autism differentially responded only to the cry stimulus, an empathic deficit hypothesis would be supported. It was hypothesized that children with autism would respond with heart rate acceleration (personal distress) to the cry stimulus. The results were inconsistent with all three between group hypotheses and the within group hypothesis. Rather results indicated a significant difference between the two groups in response to the laugh stimulus. Only the typically developing children had a significant deceleration response to the cry stimulus. However, the children with autism did not respond with an anxiety response to the cry stimulus as was hypothesized. The findings from this study suggest that at least some aspect of social function is intact in young children with autism. Results are interpreted in terms of a limbic-hypothalamic deficit hypothesis. Further investigations should include a larger sample size, more ecologically valid stimuli and concurrent behavioral response measures.

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