New research shows that people with autistic traits show less empathy and reduced understanding of other people’s feelings.
While autism is often associated with social difficulties, there has been debate in recent years about whether those in the autistic community experience difficulties in processing emotion and the exact form this takes, according to researchers from the University of Bath and King’s College London in the UK.
The debate was centered on difficulties in measuring empathy, but also on the complicating factor that many autistic people also experience alexithymia, a condition known as “emotional blindness.” People with alexithymia face difficulties in understanding their own and others’ emotions, researchers said. Yet previous research did not make it clear whether autistic people without alexithymia faced the same challenge.
For the new study, researchers addressed limitations in previous research. Across two large-scale surveys, sampling more than 650 adults from the general population, they measured the links between autistic tendencies, alexithymia, and scored individuals on a detailed empathy test.
The results found that having more autistic tendencies was linked to lower empathy, even after factoring in alexithymia.
Using computerized simulations, autism was the more dominant and statistically important link to empathy when compared to alexithymia, the researchers reported. These simulations showed that the results would be found around 90 percent of the time. The results were found in two studies and held after factoring in both participants’ age and gender, the researchers added.
“These findings provide some of the strongest evidence to date that autism is linked to lower empathy in the general population,” said lead researcher Dr. Punit Shah from Bath’s Department of Psychology.
“Although many have associated autism with poor social skills, prior to this study the association with empathy was much less clear. By drawing on large samples and using advanced statistical techniques we hope these robust results can help settle a long-standing debate and will make an important contribution for future autism support.”
“Autism being linked with lower empathy is not necessarily a negative thing,” added study co-author Lucy Livingston of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. “Empathy is useful in social situations, but it can be a mentally tiring exercise. It is also thought that selective empathy, such as understanding some people’s feelings while ignoring others, can lead to negative behaviors, such as excluding some groups from society. It may be that lower empathy for those with autism actually has unforeseen benefits that we do not fully understand yet.”
The researchers said they hope their results will be used to improve understanding and acceptance of people with autistic tendencies and diagnosed autism. They add it is important for policymakers, clinicians, and educators to be aware of such behaviors in order to create more autism-friendly environments.
The study was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Source: University of Bath