There is a persistent stereotype that people with autism are individuals who lack empathy and cannot understand emotion. It’s true that many people with autism don’t show emotion in ways that people without the condition would recognize.
But the notion that people with autism generally lack empathy and
cannot recognize feelings is wrong. Holding such a view can distort our
perception of these individuals and possibly delay effective treatments.
We became skeptical of this notion several years ago. In the course
of our studies of social and emotional skills, some of our research
volunteers with autism and their families mentioned to us that people
with autism do display empathy.
Many of these individuals said they experience typical, or even
excessive, empathy at times. One of our volunteers, for example,
described in detail his intense empathic reaction to his sister’s
distress at a family funeral.
Yet some of our volunteers with autism agreed that emotions and
empathy are difficult for them. We were not willing to brush off this
discrepancy with the ever-ready explanation that people with autism
differ from one another. We wanted to explain the difference, rather
than just recognize it.
So we looked into the overlap between autism and alexithymia, a
condition defined by a difficulty understanding and identifying one’s
own emotions. People with high levels of alexithymia (which we assess
with questionnaires) might suspect they are experiencing an emotion, but
are unsure which emotion it is. They could be sad, angry, anxious or
maybe just overheated. About 10 percent of the population at large — and
about 50 percent of people with autism — has alexithymia.
Read the whole story on Scientific American