Transgressors, victims, and cry babies: Is basic moral judgment spared in autism?

Abstract
Human social intelligence comprises a wide range of complex cognitive and affective processes that appear to be selectively impaired in autistic spectrum disorders. The study of these neuro- developmental disorders and the study of canonical social intelligence have advanced rapidly over the last twenty years by investigating the two together. Specifically, studies of autism have provided important insights into the nature of ‘theory of mind’ abilities, their normal development and underlying neural systems. At the same time, the idea of impaired development of the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying ‘theory of mind’ has shed new light on the nature of autistic disorders. This general approach is not restricted to the study of impairments but extends to mapping areas of social intelligence that are spared in autism. Here we investigate basic moral judgment and find that it appears to be substantially intact in children with autism who are severely impaired in ‘theory of mind’. At the same time, we extend studies of moral reasoning in normal development by way of a new control task, the ‘cry baby’ task. Cry baby scenarios, in which the distress of the victim is ‘unreasonable’ or ‘unjustified,’ do not elicit moral condemnation from normally developing preschoolers or from children with autism. Judgments of moral transgressions in which the victim displays distress are therefore not likely the result of a simple automatic reaction to the distress and more likely involve moral reasoning. Mapping the cognitive co-morbidity patterns of disordered development should encompass both impairments and sparings because both will be needed to make sense of the neural and genetic levels.
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