Self-referential cognition and empathy in autism
Lombardo, Michael Vincent
Barnes, Jennifer L
Wheelwright, Sally J
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Lombardo, M. V., Barnes, J. L., Wheelwright, S. J., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2007). Self-referential cognition and empathy in autism.
Background. Individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have profound impairments in the interpersonal social domain, but it is unclear if individuals with ASC also have impairments in the intrapersonal self-referential domain. We aimed to evaluate across several well validated measures in both domains, whether both self-referential cognition and empathy are impaired in ASC and whether these two domains are related to each other. Methodology/Principal Findings. Thirty adults aged 19-45, with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism and 30 age, sex, and IQ matched controls participated in the self-reference effect (SRE) paradigm. In the SRE paradigm, participants judged adjectives in relation to the self, a similar close other, a dissimilar non-close other, or for linguistic content. Recognition memory was later tested. After the SRE paradigm, several other complimentary self-referential cognitive measures were taken. Alexithymia and private self-consciousness were measured via self-report. Self-focused attention was measured on the Self-Focus Sentence Completion task. Empathy was measured with 3 self-report instruments and 1 performance measure of mentalizing (Eyes test). Self-reported autistic traits were also measured with the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). Although individuals with ASC showed a significant SRE in memory, this bias was decreased compared to controls. Individuals with ASC also showed reduced memory for the self and a similar close other and also had concurrent impairments on measures of alexithymia, self-focused attention, and on all 4 empathy measures. Individual differences in self-referential cognition predicted mentalizing ability and self-reported autistic traits. More alexithymia and less self memory was predictive of larger mentalizing impairments and AQ scores regardless of diagnosis. In ASC, more self-focused attention is associated with better mentalizing ability and lower AQ scores, while in controls, more self-focused attention is associated with decreased mentalizing ability and higher AQ scores. Increasing private self-consciousness also predicted better mentalizing ability, but only for individuals with ASC. Conclusions/Significance. We conclude that individuals with ASC have broad impairments in both self-referential cognition and empathy. These two domains are also intrinsically linked and support predictions made by simulation theory. Our results also highlight a specific dysfunction in ASC within cortical midlines structures of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex.
autism, self, empathy
This record's URL: http://www.dspace.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/239127