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How Aware Are Autistic People of Others' Emotions?

Recent research is challenging assumptions about autistic emotional awareness.

Key points

  • It is often assumed that autistic people are unable to process the emotions of others.
  • Yet a recent body of research suggests that autistic people are only slightly less skilled at emotion processing than neurotypical people.
  • However, autistic people may be slower in processing others’ emotions and may find it more challenging to do so under pressure.
  • Acknowledging these differences could help autistic people and their loved ones communicate more effectively.

One of the most widely held assumptions about autistic people is that they struggle to notice and understand the emotions of others.1 Yet many of my clients, who are predominantly women with level 1 autism, don’t fully recognise themselves in this description.

Personally, I think I have a fairly average ability to recognise emotions in others; I’ve certainly never had a problem telling when my children are upset, frustrated, happy, or angry—and of course, picking up on emotions is central to my work as a therapist.

But I do know that there are certain stressful situations where I’ve missed how upset or nervous someone else was until later. And recent research bears this out, finding that autistic emotional awareness tends to be lower when tension is running high.

One recent study, for example, found that autistic people were only slightly less able than neurotypical people to detect emotions when shown images of various people.2 It also found that they were only slightly slower in detecting emotions, a finding evident in previous research.3

Yet previous research has shown that while autistic children displayed a similar ability to read emotions in non-timed conditions, they had difficulties in processing anger and surprise when they were placed under time pressure.4 Brewer, et al (2022) found that in cases where autistic individuals took longer to process others' emotions, the longer processing time appeared due to the fact that autistic people tended to be more cautious in their interpretation of others' emotions, rather than to slower processing speed.

Ospan Ali, Unsplash
Ospan Ali, Unsplash

This wide body of more recent research certainly challenges our understanding of autistic people and may have implications for diagnostic criteria for autism. It also can help autistic people understand that while their processing of others’ emotions might be slightly slower, which may cause problems in stressful situations, much of the time they will likely be able to detect and respond to the emotions of people around them.

Much of the work I do involves finding ways to help autistic people and their families navigate their way through situations that have historically been challenging for them. Friends, family members, teachers, and colleagues can learn how to communicate with autistic people in a way that recognises differences in how autistic people’s brains work. When it comes to the expression of emotion, then, realising that your autistic child, wife, husband, or colleague may need a bit more time to process what you’re experiencing and expressing could be helpful.

My client Marina, a woman in her fifties, summed up her difficulties with facial recognition by telling me, “I’ve never resonated with these questions about not understanding someone’s emotions from looking at their face. I can tell whether someone’s happy or sad, or angry or frustrated.

"But other people have told me that I can look a bit blank while they’re genuinely upset and trying to communicate that to me," she added. "I’ve been told I take a bit longer to respond. For me, the more heightened the situation, the longer I take to process how someone else is feeling.” Marina’s experience highlights the importance of seeing autistic people’s processing of others’ emotions as a different type of experience, rather than something they are incapable of altogether.


1. Lindner JL, Rosen LA. Decoding of emotion through facial expression, prosody, and verbal content in children and adolescents with Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 2006;36:769–777.

2. Brewer, N, Lucas, CA, Georgopoulos, MA and Young, RA, (2022) Facing up to others’ emotions: No evidence of autism-related deficits in metacognitive awareness of emotion recognition., Autism Research. DOI: 10.1002/aur.2781

3. Capps, L, Nurit, Y and M Sigman. "Understanding of simple and complex emotions in non‐retarded children with autism." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 33.7 (1992): 1169-1182.

4. Nagy, E, Prentice, L, & Wakeling, T (2021). Atypical Facial Emotion Recognition in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Exploratory Analysis on the Role of Task Demands. Perception, 50(9), 819–833.

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