Master of Science
Ontario Tech University
The Double Empathy Problem posits that autistic social difficulties are due to differences in communication styles rather than an autistic deficit in theory of mind (ToM). We used fNIRS hyperscanning to examine whether neural synchrony in pairs with varying levels of autistic traits during social interactions supports the Double Empathy Problem. Participants with low and high autistic trait expression were paired creating High-High, Low-High, and Low-Low groups. Pairs completed two trials where they 1) listened to and 2) discussed stories that contained or lacked theory of mind elements, while brain activity was recorded within the ToM network. During conversation, High-High pairs were less synchronous than Low-High pairs, but more synchronous than Low-Low pairs. We found significant synchrony for High-High pairs in ToM network during three of four conditions. Although we failed to find evidence in support the Double Empathy Problem, our results provide evidence against autism-specific theory of mind deficits.
Summary for Lay Audience
One characteristic of autism is difficulty with social interactions. The Double Empathy Problem is a theory that autistic social difficulties are caused by differences in communication styles between autistic and non-autistic people, and not by autistic people being unable to understand things from another person’s perspective (a skill called theory of mind). We used a method where two people’s brains are scanned at the same time, called hyperscanning, to look at similarities in brain activity. This is called neural synchrony. Participants had high or low autistic traits, creating High-High, Low-High, and Low-Low pairs. Based on the Double Empathy Problem, we expected that people would have higher synchrony when talking to partners with similar traits. Pairs listened to and talked about two stories. Brain activity was recorded from temporo-parietal junction and prefrontal cortex, brain areas that are used for theory of mind. During conversation, we found less synchrony in High-High pairs than Low-High pairs overall, but more synchrony in High-High pairs than Low-Low pairs in several of the channels we recorded brain activity from. We found synchrony that was greater than zero for High-High pairs in the theory of mind brain areas during three of the four conditions. Results show evidence against theory of mind problems related to autism.
Turner, Kate E., "Investigating Neural Mechanisms Associated With the Double Empathy Problem Using fNIRS Hyperscanning" (2023). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 9597.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.