Autism And Empathy: Do Autistic People Have Empathy?

Yes, people with autism can have empathy just like people without the disorder do.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
September 20, 2023
min read

Can You Have Autism And Be Empathic?

Yes, people with autism can be empathic towards others, just like people without autism. Regardless of what some might believe, people with autism are more than capable of being empathic towards others.

Can You Have Autism And Be Empathic?

When it occurs, it's called affective empathy. This is empathy that's predicated on instinct and responses that are involuntary to other people's emotions.

In some, affective empathy can be a little too much to handle, causing problems when around the company of others.

By company, this includes very crowded spaces but could be seen in small social gatherings.

Empathy is the ability of someone to understand the feelings and emotions of other people. It allows for better understanding when someone is angry, sad, shy, or hurt. It's sometimes described as putting one's feet in someone else's shoes.

Empathy, when shown, lets people feel relaxed when they're in a situation they don't want to be in, can help a student better bond with his or her classmates when enrolling at a new school, and bring people to do general favors for strangers.

A child opening a door for an elderly person could be done through not only respect but empathy for them being restrained to a wheelchair. But for such honorable things to take place mandates understanding and knowledge.

Empathy can come instinctively, from training, or through good social abilities. Unfortunately, autistic people may or may not have the qualities to be empathetic, at least to the standards of the general public.

Autism And Empathy: What’s The Reality?

All people with autism have varying personalities and moods. The reality between autism and empathy is that some moods allow empathy to be shown.

However, it may not be exhibited in a way that others are accustomed to seeing it. Through much study, researchers have found that autistic people have issues with cognitive empathy.

Cognitive empathy is the recognition of the social state shown in others. It involves a recognition of someone's emotional state of being. This shouldn't be confused with affective empathy. The latter relates to understanding another person's emotions and the push to avoid reaction to it, if possible.

For instance, they might notice a person having difficulty moving a heavy bag of food but won't understand that they can help if they wanted. This is textbook cognition empathy.

Still, they probably would see that the person gets annoyed or upset since no help was offered, possibly even asking them why they're upset about it. This is effective empathy.

For empathy to be shown, social communication like being able to read a room is needed. Also is figuring out how others may feel in any given event.

In people with autism, this might be hard since they tend to think in very literal terms.

autism and thinking in literal terms

An example of this is someone asking another with ASD if they admire their new haircut. They might feel indifferent about the haircut while not necessarily hating it. As such, no would be their reply in this case, showing a misunderstanding of how their reaction makes the other person feel.

In another example, the young woman could ask a young boy with autism how he feels about a shirt that she's wearing at school one day. The boy isn't very interested in the kind of clothes that she wears due to them having an odd appearance in his mind.

He says to her that he feels nothing about it. The response was not based on his trying to upset her, but rather his disinterest in shirts of the nature that she wears.

It could be a mixture of social problems and deficits existing in cognitive empathy which builds the opinion that ASD people aren't empathetic. However, the reality is that they can be but are shown in ways that don't always align well with today's social customs.

Empathy And Gender: Are Women More Empathetic Than Men?

In some studies, women and girls with autism are found to show more empathy than boys.

Are Women More Empathetic Than Men?

Psychiatrists diagnose autism more often in boys than in girls. On the contrary, alternative studies reveal that many girls with the disorder go undiagnosed, so there's room for more studies on the matter in the future.

The research leans on there being dissimilarities in ASD characteristics as they're found in men and women. In one recent study, a publication hinted at ASD women having a greater amount of empathy that's related to one's emotions.

Emotional empathy concerns the ability to make good responses that are appropriate to a situation and the mental state of someone else.

One theory relates to autistic individuals in both boys and girls having traits that are male-associated, where they rationalize things and people more than they show empathy for them.

There was a recent test several years ago that conducted tests of this theory with approximately one million individuals. When it concluded, the researchers made the following suggestions:

  • Women tend to be more sympathetic - Although men can be as well, stronger empathetic reactions were presented among the female in the study.
  • Men and boys have more systems-related empathy - Males tend to focus on alternative methods and understanding towards empathy, which could be taken in as rude or offensive by some.
  • People with autism have profiles related to masculinity - Empathy that's sometimes taken out of context.

The theory they studied wasn't founded on stereotypes involving gender. It might be impacted by the way people take in socialization cues per gender.

Regardless, the results might not follow nuanced differences from male to female in either people with or without autism.

Autism And Alexithymia: The Truth

People with alexithymia may have challenges maintaining relationships and taking part in social situations.

Autism And Alexithymia: The Truth

Alexithymia is defined as a personality attribute that relates to someone having a hard time letting others understand their identifying emotions or general ways they try to express themselves.

People that have alexithymia sense similar emotions as people yet aren't able to see them or understand their emotions. The emotions of others around us won't be understood also.

Although not every autistic person has alexithymia, it does appear to contain overlaps. Studies conducted in the last decade present the idea that 50% of autistic individuals have alexithymia.

Can A Person With Autism Be Taught Empathy?

People with autism are capable of being taught empathy. Some think that empathy is innate, a thing that occurs naturally by instinct. But for anyone that doesn't have it, knowledge about empathy is possible.

Can A Person With Autism Be Taught Empathy?

In one examination, mind training was shown to boost empathy in children with autism between the ages of eight and 13. The training was given to children for one hour every week, for eight weeks. The kids that did it had greater levels of empathy and concerned responses to others than people that didn't get the training.

Some ASD children could display empathy more when in equine therapy. It was noted that this therapy, which involves horseback riding, may help facilitate the growth of different social behaviors. The largest of these are making eye contact, pointing at people, and the type of speech used to communicate.

Can You Be Autistic And Understand Emotions?

Yes, people with autism can understand emotions. Still, they may not know how to properly express themselves without coming off as rude or uncaring.

Can You Be Autistic And Understand Emotions?

However, it might be necessary for them to gradually learn it as they age. For some children, this might occur more quickly than with others.

Even kids with no disorders can have a difficult time understanding why their mom, dad, teachers, friends, and siblings might be upset with something they did.

Understanding emotions doesn't necessarily mean they won't know how to respond to them.

But the beginning step to a response is understanding, which is where their knowledge of reactions can gravitate to.

The ability to display emotions is crucial to one experiencing empathy for others, and sympathy as well. There are lots of people with autism that have alexithymia, as mentioned before.

As it deals with the ability to recognize and attach meaning to the emotions they feel, finding it in non-autistic people is also common. Still, the attachment to empathy and alexithymia is up for more study and observation.

In a published study by one research journal, a group of people having alexithymia were found to have more difficulty in showing empathy, no matter if they do or don't have autism. Still, those with the condition of no alexithymia were able to express empathy to others.

The people that conducted the study noted that the practice of knowing and acknowledging emotions seems to be the way to see such emotions in everyone else.

Do Autistic People Have Different Emotions?

Yes, people with autism do experience emotions that vary across individuals. People typically analyze emotions in different ways than many, sometimes misinterpreting them. When this happens, confusion can take place.

They may take some time to absorb challenges so that better management of their understanding can follow. They may use the patience of people around them to let others understand how someone they know feels.

steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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