Universiteit Leiden

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PhD defence

Understanding, expressing and interacting

  • B. Li
Wednesday 10 November 2021
Academy Building
Rapenburg 73
2311 GJ Leiden


This thesis investigated the development of emotional functioning in 2-to-6-year-old autistic children, in comparison to non-autistic peers. First, in agreement with previous research, this thesis found that autistic children experienced more difficulties in dealing with their own emotions, and in processing and reacting to others’ emotions. These challenges were present already at young ages and persistent over time. Nonetheless, importantly, when looking at the developmental trajectories, autistic children showed similar improvements with age as their non-autistic peers, in every aspect of the emotional domain. 

On the one hand, the findings of this thesis indicate that autistic children might experience emotions and process emotional information in different ways from non-autistic children, and this could contribute to their social difficulties. One the other hand, we should note that the difficulties can be bidirectional. The “double empathy problem”, first coined by Damian Milton (a researcher with autism), states that non-autistic people may be also “blind” and lack Theory of Mind when interacting with autistic people. This can be a meaningful direction for future research. That is, instead of focusing on how people with autism react to people without autism, we should investigate both sides of social and emotional communication. Furthermore, given autistic children’s potential to learn and to develop in the emotional domain, as discovered in this thesis, future research should investigate how to create an inclusive social environment, where autistic children can receive equal learning opportunities as non-autistic peers for developing social skills.


  • Prof. C. Rieffe

PhD dissertations

PhD dissertations by Leiden PhD students are available digitally after the defence through the Leiden Repository, that offers free access to these PhD dissertations. Please note that in some cases a dissertation may be under embargo temporarily and access to its full-text version will only be granted later.

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