Most people with autism have difficulties socialising and connecting with others. It’s generally agreed that part of this has to do with an impairment in taking other people’s perspective. More specifically, an emerging consensus suggests that autism is associated with having normal feelings for other people, but an impaired understanding of them. Little explored before now is how this affects the behaviour of people with autism towards others who need help.
Leila Jameel and her colleagues surveyed 573 students using the 50-item Autism-Spectrum Quotient, which is a questionnaire designed to tap key traits associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Then they asked 27 of the top 10 per cent of scorers and 24 of the bottom 10 per cent to complete a new test of pro-social behaviour known as the Above and Beyond Task.
The participants read scenarios that conflicted another person’s needs with their own. They first stated how they’d act in this scenario, and then they chose from three fixed alternatives, ranging from selfish, to medium pro-social, to high pro-social (or “above and beyond”). For example, one scenario involved seeing a man fall in the street while the participant was rushing to work for a meeting. After giving their own response as to how they’d react, the three fixed options were: carry on walking; help him up and carry on walking; help him up and offer to take him to sit down on a nearby bench.
High scorers on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient more often chose the selfish, low pro-social options and less often chose the high pro-social options, as compared with low scorers on the questionnaire. The high scorers also gave more selfish open-ended answers when first asked how they’d respond to each scenario.
Another measure was how satisfied the participants thought they would be with their chosen course of action, and how satisfied the needy person in the scenario would be. The high and low scorers on the Autism-Spectrum Quotient did not differ in their ratings of the needy person’s satisfaction with the different response options. However, the high scorers tended to say they personally would be more satisfied after making more selfish choices, and less satisfied after more altruistic choices.
This is a sensitive topic. If misinterpreted or over-simplified the findings risk bolstering the stigmatisation of people with autism. It’s important to realise that the study did not involve people diagnosed with autism, but rather a “sub-clinical population” (in the researchers’ words) who scored highly on a self-report measure of autistic traits. Moreover, the study did not involve real-world helping behaviour. It was based on hypothetical scenarios, which raises problems of interpretation. For example, perhaps people with more autistic traits are simply more honest about how they’d behave. Perhaps they find it difficult to, or choose not to, treat the fictional character as they would a real person.
With these caveats in mind, these results hint tentatively at how autistic traits could affect people’s helping behaviour in the real world. The researchers also said their new Above and Beyond task could be used to measure the outcomes of training programmes designed to help people with autism. “Despite considerable attention to social skills training in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” write Jameel et al, “relatively little is known about the efficacy of such programmes or the key ingredients for success.”