Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 235, Issue 7, pp 2081–2088 | Cite as

Helping and sharing in preschool children with autism

  • Markus Paulus
  • Bibiana Rosal-Grifoll
Research Article


Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by deficits in social-cognitive and social-communicative behaviors. Yet, little is known about the extent to which children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) engage in prosocial action. We assessed helping and sharing behaviors in 3- to 6-year-old neurotypically (NT) developing children and children diagnosed with ASD. Children with ASD were more inclined to show spontaneous helping in the absence of the helpee than NT children. In the sharing task, NT children shared the resources equally between themselves and the recipients. In contrast, ASD children kept less for themselves and gave more resources away. In addition, the stronger the ASD symptoms were and the less cognitively weaker they were, the more children preferred to give resources to a rich than to a poor other.


Neurodevelopmental disorder Autism Preschoolers Prosocial development 



For support with data acquisition and data coding we are grateful to Montse Genaró, Amaia García. We also thank the children who participated in the study and the CDIAP Montsià, CDIAP Terres de l’Ebre, Lluïssa Chavarria, Col.legi Diocesà Sagrada Família i Àngels Piquet.


  1. Aldaqre I, Schuwerk T, Daum MM, Sodian B et al (2016) Sensitivity to communicative and non-communicative gestures in adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder: saccadic and pupillary responses. Exp Brain Res 234:2515–2527. doi: 10.1007/s00221-016-4656-y CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Auyeung B, Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Allison C (2008) The autism spectrum quotient: children’s version (AQ-Child). J Autism Dev Dis 38(7):1230–1240. doi: 10.1007/s10803-007-0504-z CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bacon AL, Fein D, Morris R, Waterhouse L, Allen D (1998) The responses of autistic children to the distress of others. J Autism Dev Dis 28:129–142. doi: 10.1023/A:1026040615628 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S (2004) The empathy quotient: an investigation of adults with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. J Autism Dev Dis 34:163–175. doi: 10.1023/B:JADD.0000022607.19833.00 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Benenson JF, Pascoe J, Radmore N (2007) Children’s altruistic behavior in the dictator game. Evol Hum Behav 28:168–175. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2006.10.003 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bons D, van den Broek E, Scheepers F, Herpers P, Rommelse N, Buitelaaar JK (2013) Motor, emotional, and cognitive empathy in children and adolescents with Autism spectrum disorder and conduct disorder. J Abn Child Psychol 41:425–443. doi: 10.1007/s10802-012-9689-5 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Caprara GV, Barbaranelli C, Pastorelli C, Bandura A, Zimbardo G (2000) Prosocial foundations of children’s academic achievement. Psychol Sci 11:302–306. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.00260 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Carpendale JIM, Kettner VA, Audet KN (2015) On the nature of toddlers’ helping: helping or interest in others’ activity? Soc Dev 24:357–366. doi: 10.1111/sode.12094 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Charman T, Swettenham J, Baron-Cohen S, Cox A, Baird G, Drew A (1997) Infants with autism: an investigation of empathy, pretend play, joint attention, and imitation. Dev Psychol 33:781–789CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Chevallier C, Kohls G, Troiani V, Brodkin ES, Schultz RT (2012) The social motivation theory of autism. Trends Cogn Sci 16:231–239CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  11. Dawson G, Toth K, Abbott R, Osterling J, Munson J, Estes A, Liaw J (2004) Early social impairments in autism: social orienting, joint attention, and attention to distress. Dev Psychol 40:271–283CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Dunfield KA (2014) A construct divided: prosocial behavior as helping, sharing, and comforting subtypes. Front Psychol 5:958. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00958 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  13. Dunfield KA, Kuhlmeier VA (2013) Classifying prosocial behaviour: children’s responses to instrumental need, emotional distress, and material desire. Child Dev 84:1766–1776. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12075 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Eisenberg N, Fabes RA (1998) Prosocial development. In: Damon W, Eisenberg N (eds) Handbook of child psychology, 5th ed.: vol 3. Social, emotional, and personality development. Wiley, HobokenGoogle Scholar
  15. Fehr E, Bernhard H, Rockenbach B (2008) Egalitarianism in young children. Nature 454:1079–1084. doi: 10.1038/nature07155 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Hammond SI (2014) Children’s early helping in action: Piagetian developmental theory and early prosocial behavior. Front Psychol 5:759. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00759 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  17. Hay DF, Cook KV (2007) The transformation of prosocial behavior from infancy to childhood. In: Brownell CA, Kopp CB (eds) Transitions in early socioemotional development: the toddler years. Guilford Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  18. Hobson JA, Harris R, Garcia-Perez R, Hobson RP (2009) Anticipatory concern: a study in autism. Dev Sci 12:249–263. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00762.x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Kenward B, Hellmer K, Söderström Winter L, Eriksson M (2015) Four-year-olds’ strategic allocation of resources: attempts to elicit reciprocation correlate negatively with spontaneous helping. Cognition 136:1–8. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.11.035 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Li V, Spitzer B, Olson KR (2014) Preschoolers reduce inequality while favoring individuals with more. Child Dev 85:1123–1133CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Liebal K, Colombi C, Rogers SJ, Warneken F, Tomasello M (2008) Helping and cooperation in children with autism. J Autism Dev Dis 38:224–238. doi: 10.1007/s10803-007-0381-5 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. LoBue V, Nishida T, Chiong C, DeLoache JS, Haidt J (2011) When getting something good is bad: even three-year-olds react to inequality. Soc Dev 20:154–170. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2009.00560.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Markiewicz D, Doyle AB, Brendgen M (2001) The quality of adolescents’ friendships: associations with mothers’ interpersonal relationships, attachments to parents and friends, and prosocial behaviors. J Adolesc 24:429–445. doi: 10.1006/jado.2001.0374 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Martinez M (n.d.). Autism spectrum quotient (AQ) (Child)—Español.
  25. Moore C (2009) Fairness in children’s resource allocation depends on the recipient. Psychol Sci 20:944–948. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02378.x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Nuske HJ, Vivanti G, Hudry K, Dissanayake C (2014) Pupillometry reveals reduced unconscious emotional reactivity in autism. Biol Psychol 101:24–35. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2014.07.003 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Olson KR, Spelke ES (2008) Foundations of cooperation in young children. Cognition 108:222–231. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.12.003 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  28. Olson KR, Banaji MR, Dweck CS, Spelke ES (2006) Children’s biased evaluations of lucky vs. unlucky people and their social groups. Psychol Sci 17:845–846. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01792.x CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Pagulayan KF, Busch RM, Medina KL, Bartok JA, Krikorian R (2006) Developmental normative data for the Corsi Block-tapping task. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol 28:1043–1052. doi: 10.1080/13803390500350977 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Paulus M (2014a) The emergence of prosocial behavior: why do infants and toddlers help, comfort, and share? Child Dev Persp 8:77–81. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12066 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Paulus M (2014b) The early origins of human charity: developmental changes in preschoolers’ sharing with poor and wealthy individuals. Front Psychol 5:344PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  32. Paulus M (2016) Friendship trumps neediness: the impact of social relations and others’ wealth on preschool children’s sharing. J Exp Child Psy 146:106–120. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2016.02.001 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Paulus M, Kühn-Popp N, Licata M, Sodian B, Meinhardt J (2013) Neural correlates of prosocial behavior in infancy: different neurophysiological mechanisms support the emergence of helping and comforting. Neuroimage 66:522–530. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.10.041 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Schmidt MFH, Svetlova M, Johe J, Tomasello M (2016) Children’s developing understanding of legitimate reasons for allocating resources unequally. Cogn Dev 37:42–52. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2015.11.001 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Schmitz EA, Banerjee R, Pouw LBC, Stockmann L, Rieffe C (2015) Better to be equal? Challenges to equality for cognitively able children with autism spectrum disorders in a social decision game. Autism 19:178–184. doi: 10.1177/1362361313516547 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Schwenck C, Mergenthaler J, Keller K, Zech J, Salehi S et al (2012) Empathy in children with autism and conduct disorder: group-specific profiles and developmental aspects: empathy in children with autism and CD. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 53:651–659CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Shaw A, Olson KR (2012) Children discard a resource to avoid inequity. J Exp Psychol Gen 141:382–395. doi: 10.1037/a0025907 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Sigman M, Ruskin E (1999) Continuity and change in the social competence of children with autism, down syndrome, and developmental delays. Mono Soc Res Child Dev 64:1–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Smith CE, Blake PR, Harris PL (2013) I should but I won’t: why young children endorse norms of fair sharing but do not follow them. PLoS One 8(3):e59510. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059510 CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  40. Svetlova M, Nichols S, Brownell C (2010) Toddlers’ prosocial behavior: from instrumental to empathic to altruistic helping. Child Dev 81:1814–1827. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01512.x CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  41. Thompson C, Barresi J, Moore C (1997) The development of future-oriented prudence and altruism in preschoolers. Cogn Dev 12:199–212. doi: 10.1016/S0885-2014(97)90013-7 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Warneken F (2013) Young children proactively remedy unnoticed accidents. Cognition 126:101–108. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.09.011 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Warneken F, Tomasello M (2006) Altruistic helping in infants and young chimpanzees. Science 311(5765):1301–1303. doi: 10.1126/science.1121448 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Wörle M, Paulus M (in press) Normative expectations about fairness: the development of a charity norm in preschoolers. J Exp Child PsyGoogle Scholar
  45. Yirmia N, Sigman MD, Kasari C, Mundy P (1992) Empathy and cognition in high-functioning children with autism. Child Dev 63:150–160. doi: 10.2307/1130909 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Zinser O, Perry JS, Edgar RM (1975) Affluence of the recipient, value of donations, and sharing behavior in preschool children. J Psychol 89:301–305. doi: 10.1080/00223980.1975.9915766 CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Section Developmental Psychology, Department PsychologyLudwig-Maximilians-Universität MünchenMunichGermany

Personalised recommendations