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Sensitivity, Not Empathy, Is the Autism Spectrum Disorder Problem

Empathy in adults with Asperger's
It is sensitivity, not a lack of empathy, that causes problems for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own.

There is a commonly held belief that adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder lack empathy and cannot understand emotion. In an earlier blog, I argued that people with Autism, in fact, experience the same feelings as everyone else and are similarly capable of normal empathic reactions.

A recent article in the Scientific American confirms this view. Researchers looked at the overlap between autism and alexithymia, a condition characterized by difficulty understanding and identifying one’s own emotions. They found that “individuals with autism but not alexithymia show typical levels of empathy whereas people with alexithymia (regardless of whether they have autism) are less empathic. They concluded that “autism is not associated with a lack of empathy, but alexithymia is.”

Nevertheless, managing their emotions and acting empathically is difficult for most people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Not, however, because of an inability to identifying emotions or to care about others’ feelings. Instead, because of an oversensitivity to the experiences around them.

Whereas other people may see clearly what someone else is feeling,  the vision of those with ASD is clouded by the multitude of sensations, thoughts, feelings, and other experiences that overwhelm their perceptions and understanding. In effect, they get lost in the forest for all the trees they cannot ignore.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder Sensitivity?

As I stated, adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder are just as capable of empathy as normal people. Why then, do they not act empathically? Why do they not appear to understand what others feel, and respond with understanding, compassion, and sympathy?

Sensitivity is the cause. It is an established fact that adults with Autism have trouble regulating their responses to physical, mental, and emotional stimuli. Their senses are often too acute (hypersensitivity) or not working at all (hyposensitivity). The result is a constant effort to cope with either unwelcome stimulation, in the case of hypersensitivity, or to arouse their nervous system and draw stimulation from the outside world, in the case of hyposensitivity.

Crucially, neither hyper- or hyposensitivity are confined to lights, sounds, touch, smells and other physical stimuli. Thoughts and feelings also evoke these reactions, including one’s own thoughts and feelings and those of others.

When the effort to cope with too much or too little stimulation takes place, it becomes difficult to correctly identify what is going on in other people. Staying with the experience of someone rather than one’s own experience is often unmanageable, and often people with ASD confuse the feelings of others with their own feelings.

Those with Autism have great difficulty separating their own emotions and thoughts from others. They respond to people, not as they are actually feeling, but as the Autism Spectrum Disorder adult himself or herself is feeling. In fact, assuming others feel the way they do is one way they protect themselves from the world. By placing the cause of their own struggles outside themselves, in the world around them, including in other people, they feel less overwhelmed, confused and alone.

Can Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder Learn Empathy?

As I’ve argued, the person with Autism Spectrum Disorder is as capable of empathy as anyone else. The problem is sensitivity, both too much and too little of it. The solution lies in managing this sensitivity in a way that allows the person to see what others are feeling more clearly and then respond appropriately.

Coping with sensitivity is a skill, and like any skill, it can be learned. In a forthcoming blog, I will describe how this skill can be developed and encouraged such that the person with ASD is able to express the empathy that he or she is fully capable of.


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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