This study compared moral and social reasoning in individuals with and without autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Ten familiar schoolyard transgressions were shown to 18 participants with and 18 participants without ASD. They judged the appropriateness of the behavior and explained their judgments. Analysis of the rationales revealed that participants with typical development used significantly more abstract rules than participants with ASD, who provided more nonspecific condemnations of the behaviors. Both groups judged social conventional transgressions to be more context-bound than moral transgressions, with this distinction more pronounced in typically developing individuals, who also provided significantly more examples of situations in which the depicted behaviors would be acceptable. The educational implications of these findings for individuals with ASD are discussed.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV), 4th edn. Washington DC: APA.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (fourth edition-revised). Washington DC: APA.
Anderson, L. M. (1989). Implementing instructional programs to promote meaningful, self-regulated meaning. In J. E. Brophy (Ed.), Advances in research technology (Vol. 1, pp. 311–345). NYC: JAI Press.
Best, C. A., Minshew, N. J., & Strauss, M. S. (2010). Gender discrimination of eyes and mouths by individuals with autism. Autism Research, 3(1), 1–6.
Billings, D. (2007). Teaching for transfer of core/key skills in higher education: Cognitive skills. Higher Education, 53, 483–516.
Bishop, D. V. M., & Norbury, C. F. (2002). Exploring the borderlands of autistic disorder and specific language impairment: A study using standardized diagnostic instruments. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43(7), 917–929.
Blair, R. J. R. (1996). Brief report: Morality in the autistic child. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 26, 571–579.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1991). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. In M. Yazdani & R. W. Lawler (Eds.), Artificial intelligence and education (Vol. 2, pp. 245–268). Westport, CT, US: Ablex Publishing.
Corbett, B. A., Constantine, L. J., Hendren, R., Rocke, D., & Ozonoff, S. J. (2009). Examining executive functioning in children with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, and typical development. Psychiatry Research, 166, 210–222.
Crane-Ross, D., & Tisak, M. S. (1995). Mixed-domain events: The influence of moral and conventional components on the development of social reasoning. Early Education and Development, 6, 347–365.
Dawson, G., Osterling, J., Meltzoff, A., & Kuhl, P. (2000). Case study of the development of an infant with autism from birth to two years of age. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 21(3), 299–313.
Forbes, C. E., & Grafman, J. (2010). The role of the human prefrontal cortex in social cognition and moral judgment. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 33, 299–324.
Frith, U. (1997). The neurocognitive basis of autism. Trends in Cognitive Science, 1(2), 73–77.
Geurts, H. M., Corbett, B., & Solomon, M. (2009). The paradox of cognitive flexibility in autism. Trends in Cognitive Science, 13(2), 74–82.
Grant, C., Boucher, J., Riggs, K., & Grayson, A. (2005). Moral understanding in children with autism. Autism, 9, 317–331.
Hahn, U., & Chater, N. (1998). Similarity and rules: Distinct? Exhaustive? Empirically distinguishable? Cognition, 65(2–3), 197–230.
Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2006). The weak central coherence account: Detail-focused cognitive style in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(1), 5–25.
Harvey, R. J., Fletcher, J., & French, D. J. (2001). Social reasoning: A source of influence on social aggression. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 447–469.
Hill, E. (2004). Executive dysfunction in autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(1), 26–32.
Humphries, M. L., Parker, B. L., & Jagers, R. J. (2000). Predictors of moral reasoning among African American children: A preliminary study. Journal of Black Psychology, 26, 51–64.
Killen, M. (1991). Social and moral development in early childhood. In W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development (pp. 115–138). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Elbaum Associates.
Killen, M., Lee-Kim, J., McGlothlin, H., & Stanger, C. (2006). How children and adolescents evaluate gender and racial exclusion. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 67(4, serial no. 271).
Killen, M., Margie, N. G., & Sinno, S. (2006b). Morality in the context of intergroup relationships. In M. Killen & J. G. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (pp. 155–183). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Publishing.
Killen, M., & Smetana, J. G. (1999). Social interactions in preschool classrooms and the development of young children’s conceptions of the personal. Child Development, 70(2), 486–501.
Killen, M., & Smetana, J. G. (2008). Moral judgment and moral neuroscience: Intersections, definitions and issues. Child Development Perspectives, 2(1), 1–6.
Klinger, L. G., & Dawson, G. (1991). A fresh look at categorization skills in persons with autism. In E. Schopler & G. Mesibov (Eds.), Learning and cognition in autism (pp. 119–136). New York: Plenum Press.
Kohlberg, L. (1984). The psychology of moral development: The nature and validity of moral stages. San Francisco: Harper Row.
Kohlberg, L., & Kramer, R. (1969). Continuities and discontinuities in childhood and adult moral development. Human Development, 12, 93–120.
Leslie, A., Malton, R., & DiCorcia, J. A. (2006). Transgressor, victims and cry babies: Is basic moral judgment spare din autism? Social Neuroscience, 1, 270–283.
Lord, C., Risi, S., Lambrecht, L., Cook, E. H., Leventhal, B. L., DiLavore, P. C., et al. (2000). The autism diagnostic observation schedule–generic: A standard measure of social and communication deficits associated with the spectrum of autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 30, 205–223.
Lord, C., Rutter, M., & Le Couteur, A. (1994). Autism diagnostic interview—revised: A revised version of a diagnostic interview for caregivers of individuals with possible pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 659–685.
Loth, E., Gomez, J. C., & Happe, F. (2008). Event schemas in autism spectrum disorders: The role of theory of mind and weak central coherence. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 449–463.
Loveland, K. A., Pearson, D. A., Tunali-Kotoski, B., Ortegon, J., & Gibbs, M. (2001). Judgments of social appropriateness by children and adolescents with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(4), 367–376.
Meiran, N. (2010). Task-switching: Mechanisms underlying rigid vs. flexible self-control. In R. R. Hassin, K. N. Ochsner, & Y. Trope (Eds.), Self-control in society, mind and Brain (pp. 202–220). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Monsell, S. (2003). Task switching. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7(3), 134–140.
Newell, B. R., & Broder, A. (2008). Cognitive processes, models and metaphors in decision making. Judgment and Decision Making, 3(3), 195–204.
Nucci, L. P., & Turiel, E. (1978). Social interactions and the development of social concepts in preschool children. Child Development, 49, 400–407.
Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1987). Transfer and teaching thinking. In D. N. Perkins, J. Lockhead, & J. Bishop (Eds.), Thinking: The second international conference (pp. 285–303). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Elbaum Associates.
Porter, M., & Coltheart, M. (2006). Global and local processing in Williams syndrome, autism and Down syndrome: Perception, attention and construction. Developmental Neuropsychology, 30(3), 771–789.
Shantz, C. U. (1999). Commentary: Development, modalities, and relationships. In W. A. Collins & B. Laursen (Eds.), Relationships as developmental contexts, The Minnesota symposia on child psychology (Vol. 30, pp. 315–322). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Shulman, C., Yirmiya, N., & Greenbaum, C. W. (1995). From categorization to classification: A comparison among individuals with autism, mental retardation and normal development. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 104(4), 601–609.
Smetana, J. (1981). Preschool children’s conception of moral and social rules. Child Development, 52(4), 1333–1336.
Smetana, J. G. (1989). Toddlers’ social interactions in the context of moral and conventional transgressions in the home. Developmental Psychology, 25(4), 499–508.
Smetana, J. (2002). Culture, autonomy, and personal jurisdiction in adolescent-parent relationships. In R. V. Kail & H. W. Reese (Eds.), Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 29, pp. 51–87). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Smetana, J. (2006). Social-cognitive domain theory: Consistencies and variations in children’s moral and social judgments. In M. Killen & J. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (pp. 119–153). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Smetana, J. G., & Braeges, J. L. (1990). The development of toddler’s moral and conventional judgments. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly: Journal of Developmental Psychology, 36(3), 329–346.
Solomon, M., Ozonoff, S., Cummings, N., & Carter, C. S. (2008). Cognitive control in autism spectrum disorders. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, 26, 239–247.
Song, M., Smetana, J. G., & Kim, S. (1987). Korean children’s conceptions of moral and conventional transgressions. Developmental Psychology, 23, 577–582.
Sousa, P., Holbrook, C., & Piazza, J. (2009). The morality of harm. Cognition, 113(1), 80–92.
Sperber, D., & Wilson, D. (1995). Relevance: Communication and cognition (2nd ed.). Malden: Blackwell Publishing Company.
Stich, S., Fessler, D. M. T., & Kelly, D. (2009). On morality of harm: A response to Sousa, Holbrook and Piazza. Cognition, 113(1), 93–97.
Surian, L., Baron-Cohen, S., & van der Lely, H. (1996). Are children with autism deaf to Grecian maxims? Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 1(1), 55–72.
Tager-Flusberg, H., & Sullivan, K. (1995). Attributing mental states to story characters: A comparison of narratives produced by autistic and mentally retarded individuals. Applied Psycholinguistics, 16(3), 241–256.
Takeda, T., Kasai, K., & Kato, N. (2007). Moral judgment in high-functioning pervasive developmental disorders. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 61, 407–414.
Teunisse, J. P., Cools, A. R., van Spaendonck, K. P. M., Aerts, F. H. T. M., & Berger, H. J. C. (2001). Cognitive styles in high-functioning adolescents with autistic disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 55–66.
Tisak, M. S., Tisak, J., & Goldstein, S. E. (2006). Aggression, delinquency, and morality: A social-cognitive perspective. In M. Killen & J. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (pp. 611–632). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Tisak, M. S., & Turiel, E. (1988). Variation in seriousness of transgressions and children’s moral and conventional concepts. Developmental Psychology, 24, 352–357.
Turiel, E. (1983). The development of social knowledge: Morality and convention. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Turiel, E. (1989). Domain-specific social judgments and domain ambiguities. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 35, 89–114.
Turiel, E. (2006). The development of morality. In N. Eisenberg, W. Damon, & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, Volume 3: Social, emotional and personality development (6th ed., pp. 789–857). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.
Turiel, E. (2008). Thoughts about actions in social domains: Morality, social conventions and social interactions. Cognitive Development, 23, 136–154.
Turiel, E., & Wainryb, C. (1998). Concepts of freedoms and rights in a traditional, hierarchically organized society. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 16(3), 375–395.
Volkmar, F. R., State, M., & Klin, A. (2009). Autism and autism spectrum disorder: Diagnostic issues for the coming decade. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50(1–2), 108–115.
Wainryb, C. (2006). Moral development in culture: Diversity, tolerance and justice. In M. Killen & J. G. Smetana (Eds.), Handbook of moral development (pp. 211–240). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Publishing.
Wechsler, D. (1991). WISC-III: Wechsler intelligence scale for children. San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
World Health Organization. (1992). International classification of diseases, 10th edn. Geneva: WHO.
Zelazo, P. D., & Frye, D. (1998). Cognitive complexity and control: The development of executive function in childhood. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7(4), 121–126.
About this article
Cite this article
Shulman, C., Guberman, A., Shiling, N. et al. Moral and Social Reasoning in Autism Spectrum Disorders. J Autism Dev Disord 42, 1364–1376 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1369-8
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Social and moral reasoning
- Abstract thinking