Empathy and response to distress in children with Down syndrome

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2003 Mar;44(3):424-31. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00132.


Background: Most studies of empathy have focused on young children, and those who are typically developing. Thus, we know little about the emergence and manifestation of empathy in non-normally developing children.

Method: Empathy and response to distress in others were examined in 30 children with Down syndrome, 22 children with nonspecific etiologies of mental retardation, and 22 typically developing children.

Results: Results indicated that compared to the other children, children with Down syndrome responded to distress in others by looking to them more, and offering more comfort in the form of prosocial responses. However, in a hypothetical empathy situation, children with Down syndrome were less likely to feel the same emotion as the protagonist than were the typical children. Children with Down syndrome differed from the children with nonspecific mental retardation only in their response to distress in others. The children with nonspecific mental retardation were more similar to than different from the MA-matched typical children.

Conclusions: These results suggest some etiology-associated differences in empathy and response to distress in children with mental retardation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Child Development
  • Child, Preschool
  • Down Syndrome / psychology*
  • Emotions*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intellectual Disability / psychology
  • Male
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Stress, Psychological