Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Psychology (Arts and Sciences)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Daniel S. Messinger

Second Committee Member

Michael Alessandri

Third Committee Member

Kristin Lindahl

Fourth Committee Member

Heather Henderson

Fifth Committee Member

Michael Cuccaro


Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have difficulty empathizing with others. These empathy deficits are apparent from as early as 12 months of age and predict later ASD diagnosis and symptom severity; however, the factors that influence empathy development in children at risk for an ASD are not clear. In typically developing samples, genetic factors, such as the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR), and environmental factors, such as early parent-child interactions, contribute to individual differences in empathy. In this study, I investigated the influence of OXTR variants and characteristics of early parent-child interactions on later empathic behavior in toddlers at high- and low-risk for an ASD. Additionally, the influence of OXTR on ASD symptom severity was explored within the high-risk group. ASD risk status was defined by the presence or absence of an older sibling with an ASD. Parent-child interaction was measured during free play sessions at 15 and 18 months of age. Empathy was measured through the children’s responses to their parent’s simulated distress at 24 and 30 months. ASD symptom severity was measured with the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule. A dyadic parent-child interaction variable, affective mutuality, predicted later empathic behavior. By contrast, a parenting composite variable, emotional supportiveness, did not predict later child empathy. There were no significant main effects for either OXTR marker (rs53576 or rs2254298); however, the genotype for one of the markers (rs53576) moderated the relation between affective mutuality and later empathic behavior. There was no direct relation between OXTR and ASD symptom severity. This is the first study to investigate predictors of empathy in a sample including children at heightened risk for an ASD. Findings suggest that genetics factors, such as OXTR, and early parent-child interactions interact to influence individual differences in empathy in children at both high- and low-risk for an ASD.


Autism; Empathy Development; Oxytocin Receptor Gene; Parent-Child Interaction