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Why Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder Don’t Show Empathy

Adults with Asperger's feel empathy for others but it's difficult for them to show it.
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder do feel empathy for others. They just have trouble showing it.

“A lack of demonstrated empathy affects aspects of communal living for person’s with Asperger’s syndrome.” Wikipedia.

It is commonly held that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) don’t understand or feel what other people are experiencing, that they can’t place themselves in another’s position and see what the world is like from that person’s frame of reference. The words cold, unfeeling, aloof, detached and insensitive are used interchangeable in describing the core characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder. Almost by consensus, Autism is thought to involve an absence of feeling for other people. In other words, if you have ASD you lack empathy.

Nothing could be further from the truth, however.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder don’t lack feelings. Rather, they don’t know how to express them.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, Empathy and the Search For Truth

Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a characteristic way of thinking, processing information and problem solving. They view the world around them as a system of things or parts that are interconnected, that follow rules, and that operate in a regular, predictable manner. Understanding the symmetry and order, certainty and regularity, rules and reliability in how things work is extremely important to someone with Autism.

This is why they have trouble understanding how other people think and feel. The subjective, uncertain, emotional world of human beings is largely unpredictable. People don’t always think and act logically. Feelings are sometimes irrational. Communication doesn’t always flow in a uniform, orderly process. All of this makes understanding how other people operate very hard for someone with ASD. Their search for rules and sameness conflicts with the subjective individuality of people.

The Autism Spectrum Disorder Self and Feelings

I have said that adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder don’t lack empathy, and a major reason why is that their focus on rules and orderliness makes it hard for them to recognize their own internal experiences, not just what they themselves are thinking but their own emotions, feelings, and sentiments. The focus on rules, regularity and predictability mask the feelings of someone with ASD.

Why is this? Why is it that Autism results in a diminished ability to understand the inner experiences of others, to imagine how other minds’ function, to interpret behavior in terms of mental states, or as it has been put, to think about thinking?

My answer is that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a different sense of self than people without Autism. Specifically, they have difficulty maintaining a constant, stable self-concept, or the collection of ideas one has about who one is. Their self-awareness is underdeveloped, their recognition of a separate existence of other people is often impaired, their identity lacks coherence, and their awareness of how they process thinking and feeling is diminished.

The problem adults with ASD have in putting themselves into someone else’s shoes, imagining what they are thinking and feeling and empathizing with them is a result, in my opinion, of the difficulty they have in their own self-awareness. Because of this, they are confused often about what they themselves think and how they feel.

No wonder, then, that they have difficulty understanding how others feel. The trouble they have empathizing with others results from the trouble they have in understanding how they themselves feel.

Empathy is not missing in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is simply hard for them to see their own feelings and, thus, the feelings of others.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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