Intuitive Moral Reasoning in High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Matter of Social Schemas?

  • Ulrich Max Schaller
  • Monica Biscaldi
  • Thomas Fangmeier
  • Ludger Tebartz van Elst
  • Reinhold Rauh


Using a schema-theoretical perspective in the field of moral cognition, we assessed response behavior of adolescent (n = 15) and adult (n = 22) individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in comparison with adolescent (n = 22) and adult (n = 22) neurotypically developed controls. We conceptualized the Intuitive Moral Reasoning Test—in five moral dilemmas, participants had to choose between two alternative actions and assess their decision with respect to emotional valence, arousal, moral acceptability and permissibility from both the perspective of the acting person and then of the victim. Patients with ASD displayed a different decision and response behavior, particularly when the dilemmas were based on extreme life situations in combination with a social schema involving close social relationships.


Autism Spectrum Disorder Moral Moral cognition Moral reasoning Moral dilemma Theory of mind Empathy Schema theory Social schema Dual-process theory 



We would like to thank Ursula Nothdurft and Moritz Schulz for helping in the development and implementation of the IMRT. For testing and data collection we would like to thank Janna Berger and Heili Jutglar. And many thanks to Jessy Klima, Rebecca Hippe, Jula Pethes, and Divya Prakash Seernani for proofreading the article. Last but not least, we wish to thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and valuable suggestions.

Author Contributions

UMS conceived of the presented idea. UMS and RR conceptualized and designed the study, UMS and RR drafted the initial manuscript in consultation with MB, LTVE and TF. RR and UMS carried out the statistical analyses with support from TF. UMS reviewed and revised the manuscript, and approved the submission of the final manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants and their legal guardians.


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Authors and Affiliations

  • Ulrich Max Schaller
    • 1
    • 2
  • Monica Biscaldi
    • 1
  • Thomas Fangmeier
    • 2
  • Ludger Tebartz van Elst
    • 2
  • Reinhold Rauh
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and PsychosomaticsMedical Center, University of Freiburg, Faculty of Medicine University of FreiburgFreiburgGermany
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry and PsychotherapyMedical Center, University of Freiburg, Faculty of Medicine University of FreiburgFreiburgGermany

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