Is there a need for moral intervention concerning children with autism?

 Research Paper:

Is there a need for moral intervention concerning children with autism?

James W. Becker

EDU 6085 – Moral Issues in Education

Dr. Langford

Seattle Pacific University

May 16, 2011

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a social disorder

Autism is a spectrum disorder, which has wide variations, so treatments and interventions to help children with autism who are higher functioning may not be particularly successful for children with autism who are lower functioning (Seseske, 2006). Several areas of ASD may affect areas of a child’s life, but it is generally considered a social disorder, the National Research Council (NRC, 2001) states:

Autism is a disorder that is present from birth or very early in development that affects essential human behaviors such as social interaction, the ability to communicate ideas and feeling, imagination, and the establishment of relationships with others. It generally has life-long effects on how children learn to be social beings, to take care of themselves, and to participate in the community. (p. 11)

One of the key words in the NRC definition is “communicate,” and this paper’s topic targets whether this is a moral issue or a communication issue, which brings up two questions. Is empathy related to morality? And do students with ASD really lack empathy or just the skills to communicate it? What we do know is that if children with ASD are not taught to communicate then their behaviors can escalate to a degree that is considered more than just problematic, “target behavior’s most often addressed in intervention studies were aggression, destruction of property, disruption of activities, self-injury, stereotypic behavior, and inappropriate verbal behavior” (Horner et al., 2000 as cited in NRC, 2001, p. 118).

Does Empathy Relate to Morals?

There is no specific resources finding data that children with ASD lacked morals in general, which is reasonable and seems unfounded, the appropriate term their lack of empathy or “theory of mind” (Leslie, Mallon, & DiCorcia, 2006, p. 276) relates to isn’t “immoral,” but “amoral.” Merriam-Webster’s (2011) dictionary refers amoral as, “a: being neither moral nor immoral; specifically: lying outside the sphere to which moral judgments apply <science as such is completely amoral — W. S. Thompson> b: lacking moral sensibility <infants are amoral>.” This definition is an important distinction, but there needs to be more research on this issue before we have a definitive answer.

Empathy is a natural product that is a response that is aroused by cues of distress coming from distress in a person or situation (Hoffman, 2000), but is empathy an important part of societies moral fabric? Hoffman (2000) states, “Empathy is the spark of human concern for others, the glue that makes social life possible” (p. 3). Then if empathy is important how does it relate to morality? Bebeau, Muriel, Rest, & Narvaez (1999) state, “Moral sensitivity is defined as interpreting the situation…the awareness of how our actions affect other people. It involves being aware of the different possible lines of action and how each line of action could affect the parties concerned” (as cited in Seseske, 2006, p. 2), and Hoffman (2000) reinforces this by saying, “Empathy can influence one’s moral judgment of oneself or of the other directly, or indirectly through the moral principles it activates” (p. 20). This being said, empathy or lack thereof, does not always indicate a moral dilemma, “A sympathetic reaction is not the same thing as a moral judgment, even though victims of moral transgressions should evoke our sympathy” (Leslie et al., 2006, p. 276).

Do Children with ASD Lack Empathy?

There is a premise that children with ASD don’t lack empathy, but rather the ability to express it. Those behaviors that may seem improper or even amoral are justifiable because the child with autism doesn’t realize their actions or inactions are inappropriate (Koegel & Frea, 1993) such as a child with ASD smiling at the news of a death in the family, which isn’t to be taken as the child being malicious, it could mean that the child observes someone sad and is attempting to cheer them up without realizing the improper timing (NRC, 2001).

One of the challenges regarding morals and the ability of children with ASD to communicate is the lack empirical evidence, Koegel and Frea (1993) state, “To date we are still far from completely comprehending the area of social communicative behavior,” but they continue with, “the social deficits that are primary in the diagnosis of autism result in a great amount of difficulty in communicating appropriately for persons with this disorder.” (p. 369). In the few recent studies found dealing specifically with the subject results were optimistic, which is contrary to more dated research. Seseske (2006) states:

Unfortunately, the lack of emotional role-taking impairs the ability of a person with autism to recognize the basic human goods that are at play in a given situation. For example, he or she may not recognize the way in which words will hurt another person and threaten the good of friendship. On the positive side, the fundamental empathic response does seem to be present and perhaps can be built upon to develop their role-taking abilities further. (p. 3)


In two separate studies the subject of empathy concerning children with autism was studied. The first study assessed children with autism and typically developing children at different ages, and the second compared younger typically developing children compared to older children with autism. One study cited earlier research that connected children with autism with a lack of sympathy, “children with autism, who are known to be relatively unresponsive to the suffering of others (Sigman & Capps, 1997; Sigman et al., 1992, as cited in Leslie, Mallon, & DiCorcia, 2006, p. 276), which for many years seemed the general consensus.

The first study compared children with autism and typically developing of children, and used intensive question with metacognitive qualities, which may have affected the answers for the children with autism. In this study Grant, Boucher, Riggs, and Grayson (2005) found that:

Children with autism were compared with control groups on their ability to make moral judgments. Participants were presented with pairs of vignettes in which actions were either deliberate or accidental and caused injury to a person or damage to property. Participants were asked to judge which protagonist was the naughtier and to verbally justify this judgment. Results showed that the children with autism were as likely as controls to judge culpability on the basis of motive, and to judge injury to persons as more culpable than damage to property. (p. 317)

Even with the more complex questions the research showed that children with autism had the ability to make proper judgments with multiple scenarios. It also confirmed that they saw different levels within right and wrong such as the ability to recognize that human life was more important than property (Grant et al., 2005), which is significant.

The second study involved forty-five typically developing children ages three to five years old that were used as baseline subjects compared to nineteen children with ASD that averaged twelve years old. One element that I observed was that twenty-three of the typically developing children were girls, which is just over half, but only three of the children with ASD were girls. This was not explained, but was probably due the prevalence of boys versus girls diagnosed with ASD, which can be as high as four to one (NRC, 2001).

In this study the children were given stories of students behaving appropriately and others acting improperly. Each child was given multiple questions including “bad” scenarios; Leslie et al. (2006) provides this example:

Today Miss Megan’s class gets a treat. Everyone in Miss Megan’s class gets to pick a special toy. Sarah gets to pick a toy first. Sarah picks the stuffed bear. This makes Patty mad. Patty wanted the stuffed bear. Patty hits Sarah in the arm. This makes Sarah sad, and Sarah starts to cry (boo-hoo). (p. 273)

Then the children would be given “bad” retaliation scenarios where Sarah would hit Patty in the arm after the initial scenario. Afterwards the children were given scenarios to emulate“good” responses where the children in the stories shared appropriately, and there would be a “good” reciprocal scenario based on those. After each scenario the children were asked four questions such as, “Good/bad question. Was it good, bad, or just okay that Patty hit Sarah? [good, OK, bad: _/1, 0, _/1] Green scale. Show me how good or bad it was on the Green Scale. [child indicates point on scale: _/2, _/1, 0, _/1, _/2]” (Leslie, Mallon, & DiCorcia, 2006, p. 273-274).

Below (Figure 1.) the results showed an overall pattern of judgment that was appropriate to the story, so bad acts were judged as bad and deserved punishment, and good acts deserving of reward (Leslie et al., 2006).

Figure 1.  (Leslie, Mallon, & DiCorcia, 2006, p. 275).


The results demonstrated that, “children with autism may indeed draw a distinction between moral and conventional transgressions” (Leslie et al., 2006, p. 280). This research shows that children with autism are able to tell differences between situations regarding moral decisions, so are they exhibiting empathy but lacking the natural means to show it? This is a question that needs further examination, and these studies are an excellent foundation.  Hopefully future research will bring more light to the moral and metacognitive abilities of people with ASD. Many ideas about autism in the past have been found false such as it being a response to the lack of attention from the mother or not breastfeeding (NRC, 2001). Much research in the past has focused on what people with disabilities cannot do. Research should also be studying the capabilities, and not just the disabilities of people with ASD, which Sigman and Capps (1997) state, “Investigations should not proceed in a purely negative fashion, focusing only on impairments” (as cited in Leslie et al., 2006, p. 281). There has also been abundant studies on the social behaviors of children with ASD, but one element that has been lacking is research concerning morals, which are equally important to people with autism, “Moral sense and reasoning are important for both immediate practical and wider societal reasons.” (Leslie et al., 2006, p. 271)


Amoral. (2011). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved May 14, 2011, from

Grant, C., Boucher, J., Riggs, K., & Grayson, A. (2005). Moral understanding in children with autism. Autism, 9 (3), 317-331.

Hoffman, M. (2000). Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Koegel, R. & Frea, W. (1993). Treatment of social behavior in autism through the modification of pivotal social skills. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26 (3), 369-377.

Leslie, A., Mallon, R., & DiCorcia, J. (2006). Transgressors, victims, and cry babies: Is basic moral judgment spared in autism? Social Neuroscience, 1 (3-4), 270-283.

National Research Council. (2001). Educating Children with Autism. National Academy Press: Washington, DC.

Seseske, D. (2006). Moral development in persons with autism spectrum disorders. Ethos, 1, 1-8.

This entry was posted in L1: Learner centered, P1: Informed by professional responsibilities and policies, P2: Enhanced by reflective, collaborative, professional growth-centered practice, P3: Informed by legal and ethical responsibilities and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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