Empathy Dysfunction: Deconstructing social functioning in Autism Spectrum Disorders and Conduct Disorder
Vilas Sanz, Sara
Empathy is a multidimensional construct that can be understood as the ability to be perceptive of and vicariously experience the feelings of other people (affective components of empathy), while at the same time being able to build a working model of their emotional states (cognitive components of empathy). The ability to empathize has critical social functions in that it helps us to respond appropriately to perceived feelings of others, thereby facilitating successful social interaction. The importance of empathy is particularly apparent in disorders on the autism spectrum, where the ability to form social relationships and communicate with others is impaired. In addition, empathy is considered to be equally crucial in conduct disorder, which is characterized by reduced responsiveness to the distress of others in association with callous-unemotional traits. While both disorders are thought to be characterized by problems in empathy, social interaction and adaptation, these disorders reflect distinct problems in relationship to others within a social milieu. Individuals with either condition can appear uncaring and poorly attuned towards others, suggesting that empathy dysfunction should be considered one of the hallmarks to both conditions. It has been suggested that individuals with autism spectrum disorders show more difficulties with cognitive empathy but less so with affective empathy. In clear contrast, it has been argued that individuals diagnosed with conduct disorder demonstrate low affective empathy and normal levels of cognitive empathy in that they show relatively preserved ability to understand other people's states of mind but do not share or care about these feelings. This chapter addresses empathy dysfunction observed in disorders on the autism spectrum and conduct disorder. Mechanisms associated with empathy dysfunction are discussed and common and differentiating factors between the disorders are identified. In particular, four mechanisms vital for an appropriate empathetic experience are treated: shared affect, emotion recognition, perspective taking and self-other differentiation. Implications for social functioning of these individuals are discussed.