Callous-unemotional (CU) traits and autism spectrum disorders (ASD) symptoms are characterized by problems in empathy; however, these behavioral features are rarely examined together in children with conduct problems. This study investigated additive and interactive effects of CU traits and ASD symptoms in relation to cognitive and affective empathy in a non-ASD clinic-referred sample. Participants were 134 children aged 3 to 9 years (M=5.60; 79% boys) with oppositional defiant/conduct disorder, and their parents. Clinicians, teachers, and parents reported on dimensions of child behavior, and parental reports of family dysfunction and direct observations of parental warmth/responsiveness assessed quality of family relationships. Results from multiple regression analysis showed that, over and above the effects of child conduct problem severity and quality of family relationships, both ASD symptoms and CU traits were uniquely associated with deficits in cognitive empathy. Moreover, CU traits demonstrated an independent association with affective empathy, and this relationship was moderated by ASD symptoms. That is, there was a stronger negative association between CU traits and affective empathy at higher versus lower levels of ASD symptoms. These findings suggest including both CU traits and ASD-related social impairments in models delineating the atypical development of empathy in children with conduct problems.
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Oppositional defiant disorder