Are Autistic People Empathic? Is Everyone Else?
We need to dispel the myth that autistic people lack empathy.
Posted January 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
There’s a myth that autistic people don’t have empathy, that they’re too self-absorbed or uncaring. That’s simply false. They do have empathy. I’d like to raise the issue of “double empathy,” and the additional question (generally unasked) as to whether non-autistic people, “neurotypicals,” have empathy for autistic people.
There’s at least two kinds of empathy, cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is seeing the perspective of someone else; emotional empathy is having feelings for the feelings of someone else. They don’t necessarily go together. A narcissist can have cognitive empathy – see another person’s perspective – but not care how that person feels. Research has shown that autistic people do more poorly than neurotypicals on tests of cognitive empathy but score the same or even have more emotional distress at the distress of others than neurotypical people.
One reason why autistic people are seen as lacking emotional empathy is that autistic people don’t generally express their empathy in the expected way, with body language, gesture, and statements such as “I’m sorry” or “I understand.” An autistic person might express empathy by offering a solution to a problem, or by sharing a similar experience. Both of these can be seen as not validating the feelings of the other person. Autistic people may not have empathy for every situation. (Neither do neurotypicals.) However, autistic adults often express their support and concern directly when posting online in response to someone sharing distress. It may be that it’s difficult for autistic adults to find the right words to say in the moment, and it helps to have time as one does online.
In a recent court case, the prosecutor argued that the autistic defendant didn’t show remorse because of his lack of facial expression or tears. This was despite the fact that the defendant had said that he was devastated by the impact of his inadvertently causing an accident in which someone was badly hurt, and that he would do everything he could to help the person and his family.
Nonverbal communication accounts for well over half of social/emotional communication, and this young man’s words were dismissed as inauthentic since they weren’t matched by expressive body language. Actually, as someone autistic, this young man was much less likely than a neurotypical person to say something untrue just because it benefited him.
An autistic person often has such a strong feeling for what’s right that he would put that before his own interests. A research study examined whether individuals would incur a personal cost for supporting a morally good cause or support a morally bad cause to receive personal gain. The study found that autistic people were much more likely than neurotypical people to reject the opportunity to support a bad cause even at a cost to themselves. “ASD individuals are more inflexible when following a moral rule even though an immoral action can benefit themselves and suffer an undue concern about their ill-gotten gains and the moral cost. These findings deepen our understanding of the neurobiological roots that underlie atypical moral behaviors in ASD patients.” (Hu et al, 2000) The researchers seemed to conclude that the consistently moral behavior of autistic people and their strong concern about whether they had done anything “ill-gotten” signaled atypical behavior and inflexibility rather than admirable commitment to good causes. I question whether neurotypicals who consistently put doing what’s right over their self interest would be described as inflexible.
Like emotional empathy, cognitive empathy is also complex and worth exploring. In studies, autistic people show less cognitive empathy or ability to take the perspective of others than neurotypicals. It is possible that black and white thinking tends to frame things as right or wrong so a different perspective might be dismissed. I find using Ross Greene’s approach can be helpful in seeing different perspectives; it is described on his website, Lives in the Balance. However, let’s accept the idea that autistic people don’t do as well as neurotypicals at understanding the perspective of others.
Dr. Damian Milton raised the idea of double empathy – that empathy and understanding go two ways. I'm not aware of studies exploring whether neurotypicals have cognitive empathy for autistic people. Neurodiverse and neurotypical people have different ways of thinking and processing their experience. They notice (or don’t notice) different things and express themselves in different ways. Are neurotypical people any better at understanding the perspective of an autistic person than autistic people are at understanding the perspective of a neurotypical person?
Based on my experience, neurotypicals often see explanations of an autistic person’s perspective as an excuse. A mother of one of my clients was angry that her son didn’t carry in the groceries when she commented that they were heavy. She felt he was selfish, that he lacked empathy for her needs. She rejected my explanation that he needed a direct request (“Can you help me carry the groceries?”) instead of a hint as “making excuses for him.” Autistic people take language literally. Her son took her statement at face value and didn’t understand the implied but unstated meaning. She didn't think his perspective was valid, feeling he “should” have understood if he cared.
In another case, a girl was not participating in an interactive exercise of having a conversation in French in her French class. She was drawing instead. Her behavior was labeled avoidant and attention-seeking. The autistic student was overwhelmed by the noise in the class, the new fluorescent lighting in the room and the social demand to interact with someone she didn’t know, so she was calming herself by drawing. A behavior plan that simply prevented her from drawing did not take into account her perspective and needs.
One could take the idea of double empathy and failure of cognitive empathy further. It may be that many people don’t have cognitive empathy for people whose life experience is fundamentally different from their own, whether this difference is neurotype, racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, gender-related, or some other kind of difference. For example, there are many books and classes currently addressing the difficulty for white people of understanding the perspective of Black people.
It makes sense that people have more accurate cognitive empathy with people like themselves than they do for people whose experience of the world and processing of what happens is different from their own. Research studies have found that autistic people better understand other autistic people, and neurotypical people understand other neurotypical people, and the problems occur when different neurotypes need to understand each other. Since the majority of the world are neurotypical people, it falls upon autistic people to develop some understanding of the perspective of a different neurotype in order to navigate daily life.
The myth that all autistic people lack empathy is just that, a myth, and the whole business of empathy is much more complex than a superficial assumption of who does and doesn’t have it. Autistic people can be more empathic in some ways than neurotypicals; in the area that’s considered their deficit—being able to see the perspective of others—autistic people aren’t the only ones with challenges. There certainly is variability within groups. Seeing perspectives, emotionally connecting to feelings, and empathy in general are much more complex than they seem.
Hu, Y, Pereira, A, Gao, X, Campos, B, Derrington, E, Corgnet, B, Zhou, X, Cendes, F & Dreher, J (2020) Right temporoparietal junction underlies avoidance of moral transgression in Autism Spectrum Disorder Journal of Neuroscience, 6
Damian, M. (2012) On the ontological status of the double empathy problem Disability and Society 27 (6) 883-887
Crompton, C, Hallett, S, Roper, D, Flynn, E & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020) “I never realized everybody felt as happy as I do when I am around autistic people.” A thematic analysis of autistic adults’ relationships with autistic and neurotypical friends and family Autism 24 (6) 1438 - 1448