The relationship between psychopathy and autism: a systematic review and narrative synthesis

Kate Maguire, Hayley Warman, Frances Blumenfeld, Peter E. Langdon

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Abstract

Background and methods: The aim of this systematic review was to synthesise research examining the relationship between autism and psychopathy to: (a) better understand the relationship between these two constructs, and (b) describe the clinical manifestation of the two when they co-occur. A systematic search of the literature returned 36 studies.

Results: Across all ages, autistic individuals and those with elevated autistic traits but no autistic diagnoses appeared to have increased callous and unemotional traits or psychopathy relative to the general population. Several studies evidenced that although both constructs are associated with empathetic dysfunction, the underlying mechanisms differ. In adults, psychopathy/psychopathic traits were associated with diminished affective empathy and intact cognitive empathy, whilst the opposite was seen autistic adults and those with elevated autistic traits. In children, those with autistic traits or a diagnosis of autism had diminished cognitive empathy, but not affective empathy, while the relationship between callous and unemotional traits/psychopathy and empathy amongst children was less clear. The co-occurrence of autism and psychopathy was seen to lead to additional empathic and cognitive impairment, but findings were mixed making it challenging to clearly describe the clinical manifestation.

Conclusion: There remains a paucity of research investigating the interaction between autism and psychopathy and included studies were characterised by multiple measurement difficulties. Attention should be directed toward developing better methods for identifying psychopathic traits in autistic individuals to advance our understanding of the relationship between autism and psychopathy to allow for the development of appropriate care pathways for this population.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1375170
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Volume15
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 27 Mar 2024

Keywords

  • autism
  • callous unemotional traits
  • narrative synthesis
  • psychopathy
  • review - systematic

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