Autism spectrum disorder traits are associated with empathic abilities in adults with anorexia nervosa

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Social and emotional difficulties have been identified as key factors in the development and maintenance of anorexia nervosa (AN). However, few studies have investigated the influence of comorbid psychopathology on social cognition. The aim of the current study was to examine perception of nonverbal communication and empathy in AN using ecologically valid, performance-based measures, and to explore associations with comorbid psychopathology (anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) traits, alexithymia, and social anxiety).

In this cross-sectional study, the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET) and the Mini Profile of Nonverbal Sensitivity (MiniPONS) were administered to 51 adults with AN, 51 recovered AN (REC), and 51 healthy controls (HCs). Comorbid psychopathological traits were assessed using self-report questionnaires and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule – 2nd edition (ADOS-2).

Individuals with AN showed reduced affective empathy to positive stimuli compared to HCs, and a trend towards lower vocal prosody recognition scores relative to REC. Around a quarter of AN and REC scored above the clinical cut-off for ASD on the ADOS-2, and high ASD symptoms predicted lower cognitive and affective empathy scores.

The study is cross-sectional, future research would benefit from examining social-cognition performance and comorbid psychopathology longitudinally.

The findings highlight the importance of ASD symptoms in empathy dysfunction in those with a lifetime history of AN. Future research should explore whether treatment adaptations to accommodate for differences in social-cognitive abilities may be helpful in the treatment of AN.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)273-281
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Affective Disorders
Early online date29 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020


  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Asd
  • Comorbidity
  • Emotion recognition
  • Empathy


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