One of the biggest misconceptions about autistic people is that they lack empathy. Is there any truth to this belief?

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Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition characterized by social, communication, and behavioral differences.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 8-year-old children, an estimated 1 in 54 was identified as having ASD in 2016.

Autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger’s syndrome were once separately diagnosed disorders. They now fall under the diagnosis of ASD in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Still, some autistic people prefer to identify as either autistic or having Asperger’s.

One of the hallmarks of ASD is difficulties in social communication. This may manifest as challenges relating with others, showing little interest in other people, and difficulties with receptive and expressive language.

But do these challenges mean an autistic person can’t be empathetic?

Research into autism and empathy has evolved over the years. Initially, it was thought that the absence of empathy was a characteristic found in all autistic people. However, we now know this trait exists on a spectrum in people with ASD, just as it does in neurotypical individuals.

Autistic people think differently, which can be one of their many strengths. Yet, because of this, some of their social interactions and behaviors are often misunderstood.

This can cause some people to perceive their methods of interacting and behaviors as a lack of empathy.

For example, an autistic person may seem unaware when others are experiencing emotional distress or respond inappropriately in a social situation.

To a person who isn’t autistic, these behaviors may come across as cold or harsh, leading them to believe autistic people are not empathetic.

Research from 2018 has shown that autistic people may have difficulties with cognitive empathy (recognizing another person’s emotional state) but not affective empathy (the ability to feel another’s emotional state and a drive to respond to it).

For example, they may see someone struggling to carry a load of groceries yet not realize they may need help (cognitive empathy). However, they might notice the person has become upset about it and ask why (affective empathy).

Empathy also requires the social communication skill of “reading between the lines” and deciphering how another person may feel in a situation. For autistic individuals, this may be challenging due to a tendency to think literally.

For instance, if you were to ask an autistic person, “Do you like my new haircut?” and they don’t care for it, they may say no without understanding how that response may make you feel.

So, perhaps it’s the combination of social difficulties and deficits in cognitive empathy that may create the impression autistic people aren’t empathetic. When in reality, they are — it just presents in ways that may not meet society’s expectations.

According to Eric Mikoleit, director of Lakeland STAR School/Academy — a charter school in Minocqua, Wisconsin, that specializes in educating autistic students and diverse learners, “social communication barriers, narrow interests, and attention to detail” are some of the reasons autistic people may have difficulties expressing empathy.

But, he says, they do have empathy — however, the “levels of empathy vary significantly among individuals.”

Autistic people often need direct instruction on identifying the emotional states of others and learning to label their own feelings.

Mikoleit says these skills can be enhanced in autistic students by using modeling, teaching them how to recognize and label the emotions of others, and the actions they must take in response to those emotions.

He says there are curriculum plans specifically designed to help with teaching these skills.

According to a meta-analysis, around 50% of autistic people also have alexithymia — a condition characterized by difficulties with understanding and articulating one’s emotions, including empathy. So, the coexistence of this condition may partly explain the misconception that all autistic people lack empathy.

However, a 2020 research report indicates that it’s the presence of alexithymia and not autism that impacts attachments to others, including their parents. Though attachment and empathy aren’t the same, they are related.

Further studies suggest the deficits in emotional facial expression often thought of as ASD-specific may actually be due to alexithymia and not autism.

Still, while these studies may offer some insight, it’s unknown just how much alexithymia contributes to the differences in empathy among autistic individuals.

Another reason people may think autistic individuals lack empathy is because of a mismatch in communication between autistic and neurotypical people.

Research suggests that when two autistic individuals interact, they have the same level of rapport as two neurotypical people. However, when an autistic person interacts with a non-autistic individual, there is a tendency for miscommunication.

Also, other research suggests that recognizing facial emotional expressions can sometimes be a challenge for someone with ASD. And because people with ASD might not display many facial expressions themselves, it can be difficult for neurotypical people to read their emotional state.

This may cause the neurotypical person to think the autistic person lacks empathy. When in reality, the neurotypical person also lacks an empathetic understanding of the autistic person’s perspective.

This double empathy problem theory highlights the need for greater understanding and acceptance of autism. It also indicates a need for more understanding of how an autistic person thinks and feels.

Levels of empathy vary significantly among all people, including those with ASD. For autistic individuals who also have alexithymia, understanding empathy may be more of a challenge.

But for most, the differences in thinking patterns, social communication, and behaviors associated with ASD may be why some folks mistakenly believe an autistic person lacks empathy.

Helping someone with ASD learn to recognize the emotional state of others through direct instruction is one way to enhance their ability to empathize with others effectively.

However, neurotypical people can also be a part of this solution by learning how autistic individuals think, feel, and communicate.

Approaching empathy in this way could perhaps bridge the communication gap and foster the acceptance and understanding autistic people deserve.

For more information, the following organizations offer resources and support for the autism community: