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Objectives: Difficulties in social interaction are characteristic for depressive disorders and one of the cardinal symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). It has been proposed that chronically depressed persons have profoundly impaired empathic abilities in comparison to episodically depressed persons, and that specifically they exhibit a deficit in cognitive empathy, but not in affective empathy, a pattern also reported in ASD. This study aimed to explore autistic traits and empathy deficits in chronic depression, and identify specific differences to episodic depression. Method: Autistic traits and multimodal empathy were assessed in chronically depressed patients (n=59), episodically depressed patients (n=40), and a healthy control group (n=55) using standardized questionnaires. Results: Regardless of the disorder's chronicity, depressed patients exhibited higher levels of autistic traits and lower levels of perspective-taking than healthy controls. Chronically depressed patients reported significantly higher impairment in social skills and higher levels of personal distress in social interactions than episodic patients. Discussion: Our results suggest that patients with chronic depression share two distinct characteristics, namely lower levels of social skills and higher levels of distress in tense social situations than patients with episodic depression. Future studies will need to determine whether the elevated autistic traits in chronic depression are specific to chronic depression, or represent the general tendency to withdraw from social situations. We conclude that chronically depressed patients are not specifically impaired in understanding another person's state of mind, but are unable to deal with another person's suffering or negative affective state.

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