Empathy emerges : how social impairment and familiarity impact the development of empathy during the second year of life
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The ability to understand and share another’s feelings emerges within the first year of life in typically developing children. Impaired empathic responses, occurring early in development, such as those observed in young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), can negatively impact subsequent social development. Understanding what individual and situational contexts contribute to successful empathic responses is crucial to understanding how these impairments manifest. The current study explores potential relations between early empathic responses to the distress of a social partner and: 1) early markers of social impairment, and 2) familiarity with person in distress. Infant siblings of children with (high-risk) and without (low-risk) ASD were assessed at 12 (n=29) and 15 (n=35) months, using the Autism Observation Schedule for Infants (AOSI) as a measure of social impairment. Infants' responses to both their mother and the experimenter feigning distress were also evaluated at 12 and 15 months. Individual differences in social impairment impacted infants' attention and affective responses at 15 months but not 12 months. While empathic responses increased for those with little to no social impairment, those with high social impairment were not making developmental gains over time. Infants attended more to the unfamiliar person (experimenter) in distress across 12 and 15 months. While infants displayed more affect for the familiar person in distress at 12 months, they responded similarly to both people at 15 months, suggesting that affective responses are generalizing to unfamiliar people over time. Implications of this research, such as early interventions, as well as limitations and future directions are discussed.