People with autism don’t lack emotions but often have difficulty identifying them

Not black and white. MoonSprocket, CC BY-SA

An unfortunate myth about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is that diagnosed individuals have no emotions, that they are somehow a bit like Spock from Star Trek: analytical, logical but not very emotional. Our research in the Autism Research Group at City University London, and that of many other labs across the world, shows that this is clearly not the case.

Although individuals with ASD are often very good at analytical problem solving and express, as well as experience, their emotions differently, it is not the case that they lack emotions altogether. In fact, a very large proportion of individuals with ASD (about a half, although estimates vary) suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression that significantly compromise their quality of life. Unfortunately, very little is still known about the underlying causes of these difficulties or about how best to alleviate them.

There are a number of factors that might contribute to high levels of anxiety in those with ASD. One of these factors seems to be the difficulty that many individuals with ASD experience in identifying and describing their own emotions – a phenomenon known as alexithymia. Ongoing research in our group, which will be presented for the first time later this year at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Atlanta, US, suggests that symptoms of anxiety and alexithymia are closely associated in ASD. The degree to which individuals report difficulties identifying their own emotions is also associated with the extent to which their reported feelings correspond to their physiological responses to emotional events.

To give an example: imagine you’re confronted with a spider and you’re asked to indicate how intense your emotional reaction is. Typically, your reported feeling would correspond to your body’s automatic arousal response (part of the “fight-or-flight” response), which can be measured by monitoring how much your palm sweats. So if your body prepares for immediate action by diverting blood to your muscles, releasing adrenaline into your blood and dilating your pupils, you will report feeling intensely scared of the spider.

But if your body’s response is more measured, you might instead report feeling mildly uncomfortable. In individuals who report difficulties identifying their own emotions, this association between subjective and objective measures of emotional responses is reduced or absent. In other words they sometimes report feeling strongly about something when their bodies are in a state of relative calm and at other times they may report feeling calm when, in fact, their body is in a state of high alert.

It seems to be this relative break-down in people’s awareness of their body’s state of arousal that plays an important role in symptoms of anxiety, both in people diagnosed with ASD as well as in the general population.

Many questions still remain to be answered. For one, it is rather paradoxical that a break-down in awareness of the body’s state of arousal should lead to experiences of anxiety. Are individuals with high levels of alexithyimia perhaps aware that they are feeling something but they are not certain about what it is and this is what causes anxiety? Or could they be anxious because they often expect to feel an intense emotion that never fully materialises in their conscious awareness?

Whatever the causal relations turn out to be, one thing is certain, emotions play a big role in the lives of people with Autism – as much as many of them might welcome the ability of Spock to put feelings of anxiety aside.