Autism and Lack of Empathy

Empathy means that one understands another’s feelings as a result of replacing them. Effective communication takes place when empathy is established and people understand each other. Most people cannot understand empathy, and always selfishly argue that they are right. Understanding empathy makes life easier.

It is one of the main tools to understand and influence the minds of others. Its functions can be good or bad and may be true or false. It can also be conceived as a social reflex which can be understood by looking at what is in its absence.

An autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder in which the development of empathy is incomplete or inadequate. Therefore, in this article, I will mention the relationship between empathy and autism, how they affect each other and how they affect a person’s life.

There is a popular belief about individuals with autism that they have a lack of empathy. Because of this lack, they may not understand other people’s emotions. It is a fact that a lot of individuals with autism do not exhibit emotion in a way that individuals without autism would recognize.

On the other hand, there is a discrepancy about this issue. Holding such a view and thought can affect our perception of them. Also, this idea can affect possibly effective treatments and makes delay.

Individuals with autism may not empathize. They have difficulties in understanding emotions because they have difficulty in looking at other people’s perspectives. Therefore, when someone is sad, they do not know exactly what it is and how they should behave.

There is an interview which is made with a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder about lack of empathy. He was a little bit offensive about this issue because of the stereotypes, and also, because of the comparisons between individuals with autism and sociopaths.

According to him, empathy is not a single thing and he uses 5 questions to measure empathy in himself and in others, both normally developed people and people with mental disorders.

Firstly, he was asking whether people care about other people or not. Since a sociopath does not care about others, he does. Secondly, he was asking whether they are affected by displayed emotions or not, for example, it could be someone crying or shouting. Since a sociopath is not affected by, he is.

As a result of this question, the third one was coming which is whether they know what to do when somebody exhibits such kind of emotions. This time, while he has difficulties with responding, a sociopath may know but can manipulate others.

As a fourth question, he was asking whether they are able to guess what others are thinking when these people are not exhibiting emotions obviously or not. Moreover, he was asking whether they know what to do in these situations or not. He said that he was not good at guessing and understanding of what others would be feeling. However, a sociopath is able to do in order to use for manipulating others.

He said that before understanding others, he has difficulties with recognizing and describing his own emotions and feelings. Besides this explanation, he insisted on a lack of cognitive empathy, instead of emotional empathy. Because of these two terms differ from each other.

Lack of empathy is not a simple case when it comes to individuals with an autism spectrum disorder. There are two types of deficiencies which occurs in cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. And in these situations, we can mention only a lack of emotional empathy.

While practicing cognitive empathy, we focus on our ability to understand where a person is coming from. It means that we consider how the other person would like to act or think in a given situation, instead of considering how we would like to act or think in that situation.

In another perspective, individuals with autism understand that who is mean and who cares much, however, they do not understand emotions both themselves and others’, which means a lack of emotional empathy.

Emotional empathy is feeling the same emotion as others, one’s own feelings of distress in response to perceiving another person’s plight and feeling compassion for others. Mostly because of the difficulties and challenges in language cause this problem.

Empathy Test

It is a questionnaire which consists of 60 items. Also, there is a shorter one which consists of 40 items. It is designed to measure empathy in adults. Unfortunately, there is no paper-pencil test for measuring empathy in children.

This test is used by psychologists or psychiatrists to assess the level of social impairment in some specific disorders. Autism Spectrum Disorder is one of the main ones. On the other hand, we know that the severity of disorders varies between individuals and in this context it leads to levels of empathy vary between individuals.

It is not much use for the general population, however, it is useful as a casual measure of temperamental empathy in adults with autism. They should read the statements and rate them as to how strongly agree or how strongly disagree.

These are the same statement which is used for assessing lack of empathy;

  • “In a conversation, I tend to focus on my own thoughts rather than on what my listener might be thinking.”
  • “If I say something that someone else is offended by, I think that that’s their problem, not mine.”
  • “Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.”
  • “Other people often say that I am insensitive, though I don’t always see why.”
  • “I can easily work out what another person might want to talk about.”
  • “I can usually appreciate the other person’s viewpoint, even if I don’t agree with it.”

Why Are Individuals with Autism Unable to Empathize?

Individuals with autism lack the ability to understanding social cues and the social skills which are related to observing, interpreting and understanding body language, gestures and in general social cues. They do not have predispositions to imitate others as much as normally developed people do. We cannot be sure there is a lack of feeling. So, we can say that it could be the result of a lack of social skill.

Because of this reason, requiring skills in order to understand, imitate or respond to others’ thoughts, feelings and emotions are the skills that are likely to be compromised in Autism Spectrum Disorder. For instance; 

  • A person should recognize and understand another person’s feeling in order to empathize with. Individuals with autism have difficulties with it. They have challenges while reading others’ faces, body language and given social cues. Also, they may not understand the whole language, whole conversation.
  • In daily life, a person should share others’ hopes, expectations, and dreams for empathizing. On the other hand, individuals with autism may not do. For example, they may not share an intense desire for romantic involvement as much as partners do, they may not share an ambition to advance in the career as much as coworkers do, they may not share the fear of embarrassment as much as the rest of the world does.
  • A person should be appropriate both emotionally and cognitively to understand and make a connection between feelings. It gives an opportunity to empathize with others. However, individuals with autism may have cognitive challenges to do that. Also, even if they have the capability of sympathizing, they may not show enough empathizing.

  • In social life, while exhibiting feelings which are empathic, people use tools to show it instead of only telling in order to empathize with another person. Individuals with autism may not do. Even if they understand another person’s feeling and empathizing, they may not demonstrate or they may not simply tell about their feelings in ways that others can understand.
  • It is necessary to share cultural understanding while living within a society. For cultural understanding, people expect from each other that display of empathy, and also it is a common desired wish. It leads people to empathize. Individuals with autism may not fit in this situation. They may not select the cultural cues and thus they may not express feelings which are needed to empathize for cultural understanding even if they feel the same thing with the society.

Autism Spectrum Disorder as an Empathy Disorder

Researchers and mental health disorder professionals have a debate on this topic. Depends on how you define empathy, we can call it empathy disorder or not.

Empathy was called as the ability which makes people human. After this definition, a person with autism was very angry and she said that according to this definition she cannot be human because her empathy is either lacking or impaired.

As we mentioned before, it is a popular belief that individuals on the autism spectrum lack empathy. One of the main symptoms of autism is mind blindness. It means that a person with autism cannot read social cues, gestures and body languages. And because of this reason, they cannot tell what others think or feel. As a conclusion, according to individuals with autism, it is very hard to respond in a proper way in social contexts and they may appear emotionless in such situations.

This is because autism spectrum disorder and empathy disorder are confused. On the other hand, there is a debate about this topic. Because some individuals with autism may experience empathy and also their families may witness empathy. They sometimes report that they can feel other people, they can think like others or they can put themselves in others’ shoes even a greater extent than normal.

There is a girl with autism in the kindergarten who is 6 years old and certainly empathic. She is able to react strongly to others around her. For example, if one of her friends cries, she becomes distressed; if there are happy people around her, she shows happiness; even her parents have an argues, she feels and becomes moody.

And in fact, after some point, many researchers and mental health professionals start to question and start to observe in detail whether there is a real connection between lack of empathy and autism or not.

According to them, there is a suggestion which is different than popular belief. Instead of impaired the ability of empathy, the ability to understand others, describe feelings, express other’s emotions and feelings, and as a cause of all of it social communication skill is impaired in individuals with autism.

Also, there are some other definitions of empathy by researchers which support the idea that individuals with autism lack empathy. For example, it may mean reading the emotional atmosphere and reverse it to another’s thoughts, emotions, and feelings. Also, it may mean that looking through the eyes of another person and put yourself in their shoes.

However, it is the cognitive ability that is measured in tests where professionals ask individuals with autism to look at faces, or mostly pictures, and try to guess what emotion and feeling they are exhibiting. That’s why it is a quite limited definition to refers it and also it sometimes calls shallow empathy because of features.

Contrary to shallow empathy which is cognitive empathy, there is also deep empathy which is affective empathy. This is the ability that actually feels and thinks what others are experiencing. It means that if you have this one, you can sense another person’s feelings and emotions. Deep empathy is the source of compassion.

A person with or without autism can high level of deep empathy and a low level of shallow empathy, low level of deep empathy and high level of shallow empathy, the high level on both or low level of on both. Even though these seem to be independent, there is a connection between them as it should be.

Most of the time, while people without autism may have a high level of shallow empathy and low level of deep empathy; since people with autism may not be good at shallow, however, maybe not impaired in deep empathy at all. It depends on the person’s characteristics, education, an environment which living in and people around them.

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Alexithymia

There is a debate about empathy is a consequence of a co-occurring condition which is known as alexithymia, even if it is a symptom of autism, it is considering that there is a relationship between them.

Alexithymia is defined by having problems with own feelings and lack of understanding of others’ feelings. Individuals with alexithymia have difficulties differentiating between feelings and the bodily sensation. Because of this part, it is not the symptom of autism. It is not even related with autism.

According to recent studies, there is a high percentage of individuals with autism has this trait, although it is not the main symptom. Alexithymia is more common in individuals with autism than normally developed individuals. Disconcertingly, it is more common in parents of individuals with autism, too.

Although individuals with autism spectrum disorder experience alexithymia at much higher rates, autism and alexithymia appear to be distinct, unrelated, and overlapping conditions in which alexithymia seems to influence affective (deep) empathy.

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