Autism and Empathy

Although autism stereotypes and bad science have led the general public to believe that autistics lack empathy, there is a lot of evidence pointing towards the contrary.

When people think of someone who is incapable of empathy, their first thought goes to sociopaths or psychopaths. They imagine someone who is not upset when seeing the pain of others. As they should, per the definition and general usage of the word. But, they also often think of autistics.

The scientific community has tried for many years to show a correlation between autism and low levels of empathy. A study from 2019 was published in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. It concluded that low levels of empathy correlated with autistic traits.

In the past, such studies have been questioned about their validity due to a condition called alexithymia. Alexithymia is a condition that consists of difficulty in identifying and describing one’s emotions and/or the emotions of others. It is often co-occurring with autism and is present in upwards of 50% of the autistic population. In contrast, alexithymia only affects around 5% of the neurotypical population.

This particular study was unique in that it accounted for alexithymia. By doing so, the study was able to conclude that the atypical empathy they saw in the group of autistics studied wasn’t just a result of co-occurring alexithymia, but had something to do with autism itself.

This isn’t the only study to present these findings. Currently, the general consensus is that autistics, on average, have lower levels of cognitive empathy. But what is interesting is that there isn’t much evidence pointing towards lower levels of affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize and understand another person’s mental state. Affective empathy is the ability to share the feelings of another person, without any personal emotional stimulus.

In a study from 2017, published in The Psychological Record, it was illustrated that autistic people have low levels of cognitive empathy, but also unusually high levels of affective (or emotional) empathy. This research was based off of a hypothesis called the Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis (EIH) of autism. Not only has the EIH been supported through research, but it also seems to fit better with the personal accounts of autistic people.

If the EIH is true and autistic people have an imbalance of cognitive and affective empathy, it would make sense that a lot of previous research has shown autistics lacking empathy, as much of that research was not designed to distinguish between the different types of empathy.

Before I was officially diagnosed with autism, I took a wide variety of autism tests. One of the tests I took was the Empathy Quotient. It is a 10 minute long questionnaire developed by Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelwright that was published in 2004. The test is used to determine empathy levels in autistic adults. Most non-autistics score between 42 and 47.

I scored 14.

When I saw my score, I was devastated. I’ve never seen myself as an unempathetic person. I don’t think my friends or family would describe me as unempathetic either. But, there it was, evidence to the contrary.

When re-evaluating the questions though, something became blaringly obvious. The empathy quotient wasn’t testing my empathy, but rather my social and communication differences. Questions like “I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation” are more indicative of my autistic brain not understanding a neurotypical brain than they are of me lacking empathy.

After riding the emotional rollercoaster of Simon Baron-Cohen’s neurotypically biased test, I found another test evaluating empathy. The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire was published in 2009 by Nathan Spreng, Margaret McKinnon, Raymond Mar, and Brian Levine. Neurotypicals usually score around 44, with lower scores indicating lower empathy and higher scores indicating higher empathy.

I scored 50!

Whereas the Empathy Quotient was focused on whether or not I reacted to situations in a neurotypical manner, the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire focused on my capacity for emotional empathy.

I think there is still a lot to learn about the relationship between autism and empathy, but I definitely don’t think that autism should be associated with a lack of empathy. As presented by the Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis and even my own empathy scores, it seems that autistic people have plenty of empathy, maybe even more than neurotypicals, but we don’t always pick up on social cues, making cognitive empathy more difficult for us.


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