We use empathy to understand other people’s feelings – to be able to predict and influence their behaviour. But the ability to empathise varies from person to person. While many people are easily able to understand others, some people – such as the majority of those with autism – experience difficulties in social situations.
Empathy has therefore been the focus of much psychological research, particularly in autism. Yet there is still some debate about whether or not people on the autistic spectrum experience empathetic difficulties. This lack of clarity has, until now, been largely due to problems associated with the tests used to measure empathy and the small number of participants in research.
Studying empathy in autism is further complicated by the fact that many autistic people also have alexithymia, a condition known as “emotional blindness”.
People with alexithymia have difficulty understanding their own emotions, so they struggle to understand how others are feeling too. It is important to consider alexithymia when investigating empathy and autism – this is something that has not been enought of a focus in previous research.
In an effort to counter these previous limitations, a brand new study used large-scale surveys of more than 600 adults from the general population. Punit Shah and his team measured the links between autism, alexithymia, and scores on a reliable empathy test. The study also used statistical methods that had not previously been used in autism research.
The study found that having more autistic traits is associated with lower empathy – even after factoring alexithymia into the analysis. In fact, the study provides some of the best evidence so far that autism is definitely linked to lower empathy.
We hope these findings will help to resolve debate among researchers and clinicians, and ultimately help to improve understanding and acceptance of people with autistic tendencies and diagnosed autism.
A different view
But we also need to consider whether autism being linked with lower empathy may not necessarily be a bad thing. Empathy is useful in social situations, but it has also been found to be mentally tiring.
It is also thought that “selective” empathy, such as understanding some people’s feelings while ignoring the feelings of others, leads to immoral behaviour and exclusion of some groups from society. For example, it is common for people to engage in behaviours that prioritise the feelings of friends and family, but neglect the perspectives of strangers.
Empathy is widely seen as a positive attribute, but it has a dark side that is poorly understood. So lower empathy in autism might have benefits that we do not yet fully appreciate.
Autistic people have also been shown to make fairer social decisions. Earlier this month it was reported that they are more likely to share money equally with unfamiliar people instead of taking more money for themselves.
It may be that it a lower level of empathy is actually allowing autistic people to make these fairer decisions, without undue influence of how others may respond emotionally.
Outside of social contexts, other psychological abilities of autistic people have been identified. For instance, it has been well established that they have superior visual search abilities. That is, autistic people are better able to scan a visual environment and find a specific object or feature.
It has also been suggested that autistic people may have untapped creative talent. It is likely there are many more abilities associated with autism that are not yet fully appreciated.
What is clear is that autism is linked to a different way of thinking. This sometimes makes interactions awkward between people with and without autistic tendencies.
But autistic ways of thinking are enormously valuable. They allow people to view problems from new perspectives and challenge irrational thinking, which fuels progress in society. Lower empathy and other psychological factors related to autism may in fact have unrealised potential to improve all of our lives.