Previously, I wrote about the fact that adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often appear not to feel empathy for other people. A common stereotype is of a cold, detached, emotionally unavailable person who has little regard for someone else’s hurt and pain. I argued, instead, that ASD does not suppress a person’s ability to empathize, rather it makes it more difficult to put oneself in another’s position and to feel what that person is experiencing. The capacity to empathize is present, but detecting it and communicating it suffers.
There’s some confusion here, however. Empathy is defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, together with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking. Autism, on the other hand, is characterized, in part, by a lack of understanding what other people think. How, then, could people with ASD feel empathy if they can’t understand very well what is going on in someone else’s mind?
We have to delve a little deeper into explanations of ASD in order to answer this question.
What Makes Empathy Difficult for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Two main theories attempt to explain the problem of empathy in Autism Spectrum Disorder. The first, which I described briefly above, focuses on the fact that Autism makes it difficult to fathom what goes on in other people’s minds. Mind blindness, as it is called, is why people with Autism tend not to grasp abstract communication like jokes, innuendo, irony, and metaphors or to anticipate what people are thinking. It’s why they struggle to relate in social situations. Since emotions are complex experiences, as are jokes, etc., people with ASD have a hard time grasping them.
Simply put, if you have trouble imagining what people think you’re likely not to have a very good idea of how they feel. Feelings, in this view, are no different from thoughts, and if you don’t understand feelings, it’s hard to empathize.
The other theory suggests that empathy is hard for adults with Autism because they feel others’ emotions too intensely. Because adults with ASD typically are hypersensitive to sounds, lights, tastes, smells and textures, they tend also to be very sensitive to emotions, so the idea goes. Being hypersensitive to feelings makes it hard to process, as well as to disengage, from them. Imagine being in a small room with loud, raucous, and disharmonic music blaring, and you have no control over when it plays and how loud it is. It’s pretty hard to appreciate the music. The same follows, according to the theory, with emotional experiences.
Why Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder Do Feel Empathy
Unfortunately, the two theories I described each have flaws in them, deficiencies large enough to call into question whether they accurately explain empathy in Autism. For one thing, research indicates that mind blindness may not be the same as the inability to describe or understand emotions, a condition known as alexithymia. When asked to identify the correct emotional state in photographs of human faces, people with ASD scored as well as normal subjects whereas people with alexithymia had much more difficulty. The implication of this research is that having ASD doesn’t necessarily mean one can’t feel empathy.
Additionally, other research suggests that variations in a particular gene linked to differences in empathy level are significantly more common in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Thus, genetics may play a greater role in empathy for those with ASD than it does in the regular population. Hypersensitivity to emotions would not be a likely candidate to explain a lack of empathy if the actual cause is variation in a certain gene.
My own view, as I stated earlier, is that people with Autism are as capable of understanding feelings and emotions as anyone else. The problem they have is not with empathy but with expressing it.
I believe this is caused by the same problem that causes ASD, difficulty in maintaining a consistent internal representation of themselves and of others, an idea we know commonly as self-concept.
In my next blog I will explain how difficulty maintaining a stable self-concept makes it hard for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder to express empathy.