Publication Date



Open access

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Psychology (Arts and Sciences)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Kristin Lindahl

Second Committee Member

Daniel Messinger

Third Committee Member

Mark Rowlands


People with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have difficulty empathizing with others, contributing to deficits in social interaction and communication. The degree of difficulty empathizing may be related to the level of impairment associated with the ASD. Little is known about the early development of empathy prior to ASD diagnosis. A novel way of studying the early development of ASDs is to study the development of younger siblings of children with ASDs, who are at an increased genetic risk for these disorders, and compare them to children with typically developing older siblings. The current study examined how empathic responding and cooperation, a measure of prosocial functioning, at 24 and 30 months of age differed between children who later received a diagnosis of autism or pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified, and those who did not. Overall, children engaged in more empathic responding at 30 months than at 24 months. As expected, children later diagnosed with autism engaged in less empathic responding than children with no diagnosis. Additionally, lower empathic responding at 24 months predicted higher autism symptomatology at 30 months. In terms of cooperation, children tended to engage in less noncompliant behavior at 30 months than at 24 months. However, no age differences were found for compliant behavior. Contrary to expectations, there were no diagnostic group differences in cooperative behavior nor was there a relation between empathic responding and cooperation. This was one of the first studies to investigate empathic responding in young children prior to diagnosis with an ASD. Results show that empathy deficits are present from an early age, and may be an important predictor for later diagnosis. Implications for these findings and future directions are discussed.


Autism Spectrum Disorders; Empathy