How do we develop empathy? A study on autism spectrum disorders

We are using brain scans to examine why some children have a hard time understanding what other people are feeling.

Caidos Sapsford, empathy and autism research at Neuroscience Research Australia

Eleven-year-old Caidos Sapsford loves science – particularly his year seven chemistry class.

"I like seeing things bubbling and frothing," says Caidos. "So far in class we've only boiled water with a Bunsen burner, but I'm looking forward to the experiments, especially making a battery out of a lemon. It sounds strange, but it can be done."

Caidos excels at maths and science and is, according to his mother Josephine Donachie, very bright. But it wasn't always this way. When he was just five, Josephine was told that Caidos had Asperger's syndrome and that his future would not be easy.

"A teacher actually used the word bleak," says Josephine.

Asperger's syndrome is one of the autism spectrum disorders, a related group of conditions that appear early in life and are characterised by difficulty with social interactions, communication, and repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behaviour. Individuals with Asperger's are often less severely affected than those with autism.

Contrary to his teachers' predictions, Josephine says that as Caidos has grown older, Asperger's has had just a mild effect on his life.

"He's a bright boy, so by default he's minimising the effect of Asperger's," says Josephine.

Both Caidos and Josephine believe that his Asperger's fuels his aptitude for computers, maths and science. On the flip side, however, his Asperger's also manifests as a difficulty with social skills, such as reading body language and other cues. These difficulties are particularly noticeable in the school yard.

"Sometimes I get things wrong, so where someone else will read a person's body language and stop doing something, I sometimes won't. So I may annoy people, or maybe hurt their feelings and I won't know," says Caidos. "At first, I didn't naturally get the value of making friends properly, so some people don't really like me."

This ability to recognise what others are feeling and adjust to social situations – what we call empathy – is essential for communication and building relationships. Experiencing empathy is one of the biggest challenges for children with autism spectrum disorders.

The question of what's happening in the brain to cause these difficulties is the subject of Prof Rhoshel Lenroot's research at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA).

The developing brain

An expert in child and adolescent mental health, Prof Lenroot suspects that differences that develop in the brain as a child grows older may contribute to some children's difficulties with empathy.

Autism and empathy research at Neuroscience Research AustraliaCaidos checks out the MRI machine with Prof Rhoshel Lenroot

Prof Lenroot is using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify these subtle brain differences. In particular, the team is examining the structure and function of those brain regions that help us recognise when someone is happy, sad or afraid. They are also exploring whether children with autism spectrum disorders pay less attention to the eyes of the person they are interacting with by monitoring their eye movements while they are shown images of different facial expressions while in the MRI scanner.

"On an MRI scan, we might find differences jn the size of a brain region or the thickness of the cortex, or we might see changes in levels of activity and functioning of a brain region that corresponds with differences in behaviour," says Prof Lenroot.

Prof Lenroot says that although genetics play an important role in brain development, environmental factors – such as having a safe place to grow up, adequate nutrition and not being exposed to toxins – may also be influential.

"The upside to knowing that the environment plays a big role in brain development is that there may be ways of intervening to improve outcomes for children with disorders such as Asperger's," says Prof Lenroot. "Pinpointing differences in brain development in our study will hopefully help us to design these interventions."

Recruitment for the study is well underway. Each child is scanned in the MRI on-site at NeuRA, and put through a series of neuro-psychological tests.

Caidos says that while he had "a bit of a kerfuffle" with the tests, the MRI was what he really came for.

"My favourite thing was being inside the machine. There's supposed to be a low vibration, and I thought it would be so low that I wouldn't be able to hear it, but it wasn't. There were lots of weird sounds."

If he has Asperger's to thank for his affinity with science, Caidos doesn't think he's doing too badly at all.

"The thing with Asperger's is the way you look at things, so often I see things differently from others. This means I come up with different solutions to problems."

Caidos with his mum, Josephine

As for improving his social skills and ability to empathise, Caidos is keeping one step ahead of science with a solution of his own.

"I am learning to listen and observe so that I say and do the appropriate things at the appropriate time. The benefit of having to work things out is I often reflect on what was said or done," he says. "I ask lots of questions."

Want to read more from this series?

Finding frontotemporal dementia
The science of breathing
Could cannabis have antipsychotic properties?
Growing old well

Read more features and profiles

Read more about our research in 'NeuRA 2010 in review'

Read more about Prof Rhoshel Lenroot's research



Words: Maryke Steffens
Images: Anne Graham

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