In young children with high levels of autistic traits, some changes in self-aware emotions may occur

A new study published in Development of the child explores the relationship between autistic traits, intellectual ability theory, and self-aware emotions in children. Researchers examined whether autistic traits are associated with deficits in the theory of mind, the ability to understand the mental states of others and predict their behavior, and whether these deficits are related to experiencing self-aware emotions, particularly shame-like avoidance.

The results suggest that children with higher levels of autistic traits had deficits in the theory of mind. Additionally, autistic traits have been positively associated with verbal shame-like avoidance.

The study was motivated by the need to understand the link between autistic traits and confident emotions in young children. Self-aware emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, and shame play critical roles in social interactions and can motivate or inhibit prosocial behavior depending on how individuals respond to their transgressions. These emotions are important for building and maintaining social relationships.

While previous research has shown disorders of self-aware emotions in older children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it was not known whether similar disorders exist in early childhood and whether they are related to autistic traits.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significant deficits in social interaction, manifested as decreased social awareness and communication, impaired emotional engagement, and stereotyped behavioral patterns.

Children with ASD often exhibit impairment in their ability to consider the thoughts of others (known as “theory of mind”), which can lead to disturbances in self-aware emotions following transgressions. If a child does not realize that they have violated a norm or hurt someone’s feelings, they may not feel guilt or embarrassment. Instead, they may feel shame and exhibit withdrawal behavior.

Studies examining the association between autistic traits and self-aware emotions have primarily been conducted in older children and adolescents. There is evidence that children with ASD show fewer signs of guilt and more signs of shame. However, it is unclear when these disorders develop or what underlying mechanisms are involved.

In their new study, Shanna van Trigt and colleagues wanted to explore the link between autistic traits and self-aware emotions after misbehavior in children between the ages of 2 and 5. They hypothesized that higher levels of autistic traits would correlate with reductions in guilt and embarrassment and increased shame-based avoidance. In addition, they wanted to investigate whether the deficits of the theory of mind could be partly responsible for these connections.

The study involved 98 children between the ages of 2 and 5, who completed tasks designed to evoke confident emotions. The research team gathered information about participants’ autistic characteristics using a parent’s report, measured whether the children could consider the thoughts of others, and measured self-aware emotions using a scenario in which the participant was asked to believe they had broken another child’s favorite toy.

The researchers found that children with more autistic traits exhibited more verbal shameful avoidance, meaning they tended to verbally withdraw or avoid social situations after a transgression. There was also some evidence of non-verbal shameful avoidance, but this was not statistically significant. However, the study did not support the assumption that children with more autistic traits feel less guilt and shame when they have done something wrong.

The researchers also found that children with more autistic traits had reduced theoretical skills. However, the disturbances in self-aware emotions were not directly related to these lower ToM abilities.

Overall, the results suggest that children with more autistic traits may have difficulty with some self-aware emotions, particularly shame-like avoidance, but not necessarily guilt and embarrassment. These self-aware emotion disorders may be related to autistic traits, but they cannot be explained exclusively by deficits in theory of mind.

The findings have important implications for social interactions in children with and without autistic traits. Difficulties with theory of mind and persuasion skills can affect the ability to understand the perspectives and intentions of others, potentially leading to challenges in social relationships. Furthermore, the positive association between autistic traits and verbal shame-like avoidance suggests that these children may have difficulty in verbal social interactions, which could further impair their social functioning.

The study has some limitations that should be taken into account. The sample size was relatively small, which may limit the generalizability of the results, and the study relied on self-report questionnaires and behavioral observations, which may be biased.

Despite these limitations, the study provides important insights into the connection between self-aware emotions, social rules, and autistic traits. The results suggest that interventions to promote self-aware emotions may be beneficial for children with autism because they can help these children learn social rules and behave prosocially.

The study, Autistic Traits and Confident Emotions in Early Childhood, was authored by Shanna van Trigt, Cristina Colonnesi, Eddie Brummelman, Terrence D. Jorgensen, and Milica Nikolić.

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