Although most people with Autism have developed coping mechanisms to help them deal with the social and communication challenges of their disorder, it is important for those who do not yet cope well to know that there are other ways in which they can improve. One such method is through healing from trauma.
The “do autistic people know they are autistic” is a question that has been asked for a long time. The answer is yes, most autistic people do know they are autistic because of their lack of empathy and emotions.
There are various misconceptions and misconceptions regarding how autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects people’s emotional experiences and expressions. One of the most common misconceptions is that persons with autism lack “normal” empathy and feelings, and that autistic people are coldly rational and analytical, unable to connect to other people. This isn’t correct. Autism patients experience the entire spectrum of human emotions. They may suffer from alexithymia, a disorder that impairs their capacity to comprehend and process emotions. It also makes it difficult for them to express their feelings to others.
Autism & Alexithymia
According to experts, what we now know to be a misperception regarding autism stems from obsolete research in the area, which dates back to a time when little was understood about the disorder’s functioning.
Scientists from the Autism Research Group in London explain in The Conversation that although individuals with ASD are exceptionally excellent at logical problem-solving, they also experience the whole gamut of human emotions. They do, however, express and feel emotions in quite different ways than neurotypical people.
One of the hallmarks of autism is the inability to recognize and express one’s own feelings. In certain individuals, this manifests itself as alexithymia, which literally translates to “no words for emotions.” It’s simply the inability to express one’s feelings.
Alexithymia isn’t only for autistic persons. It affects 10% of the general population, but up to 50% of persons on the autistic spectrum suffer from it.
Recent studies (such as that published in the Cortex magazine) suggests that alexithymia, rather than autism, is the limiting factor in interoception, or the ability to grasp what a person is feeling or experiencing at any one time. This makes it difficult for persons with alexithymia to maintain control over their actions.
Alexithymia and autism are strongly connected, however the differences between the two illnesses are yet unclear.
Expressing Emotion & Empathy
People with autism may report having powerful emotions about an emotional experience despite their body not displaying a conventional response. At a funeral, for example, someone with autism may not exhibit any indications of emotion. Similarly, they may claim to be tranquil while displaying bodily symptoms of tension and alertness. This may look perplexing and false to others.
According to Spectrum authors, this gives the impression that individuals on the autism spectrum don’t display emotion in ways that others can comprehend. This is therefore misinterpreted to indicate that persons with autism lack empathy and are incapable of recognizing emotions, which is untrue. People with autism who consented for testing said they felt “normal or even excessive empathy,” but acknowledged that their capacity to detect and articulate these feelings in ways that neurotypical people understand is restricted.
According to studies, autistic persons with alexithymia will recognize that they are experiencing an emotional reaction to something, but they won’t know what feeling it is. However, experts are keen to stress out that alexithymia does not affect every autistic individual, and that autism does not cause alexithymia.
Is Alexithymia the True Problem?
The researchers looked at four groups of individuals to see whether persons with autism exhibit “normal” empathy and feelings. The following groups were formed:
Patients with alexithymia and autism.
Patients who do not have alexithymia but do have autism.
Alexithymia patients who do not have autism.
Patients who do not suffer from alexithymia or autism.
Patients with autism, but not alexithymia, showed typical levels of empathy, according to their research. Patients with alexithymia, whether they had it or not, were less empathic, indicating that it is the alexithymia, not the autism, that is causing the lack of empathy.
People with alexithymia will still care about other people’s emotions, but they may not know how to react appropriately to these sentiments, particularly when the feelings are intense, such as showing sympathy to someone who is grieving or being patient with someone who is furious. Patients with alexithymia, on the other hand, continue to have emotional responses. When compared to persons who did not have alexithymia, such patients “showed higher discomfort in reaction to observing others’ sorrow,” according to a research published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.
Indeed, the authors of Spectrum claim that alexithymia, rather than autism itself, is to blame for autism’s link to difficulty perceiving others’ emotions.
Relationships that are complicated
People with autism often have difficulty establishing eye contact with others. The ability to recognize emotions via nonverbal clues from the eyes and lips is crucial, which is why autistic persons suffer. Is it, however, autism or alexithymia? Researchers discovered that persons on the autism spectrum, regardless of whether they have alexithymia, “spend less time gazing at faces” than neurotypical adults, according to a study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Individuals on the autism spectrum who do not have alexithymia, on the other hand, look at faces in the same manner that neurotypical people do.
People with alexithymia, on the other hand, stare at faces for a typical length of time regardless of whether they have been diagnosed with autism, but they have a “disturbance” in the perception of facial emotions, according to a research published in the journal Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. This might explain why some individuals on the autism spectrum are better at conveying their feelings than others, and why those with alexithymia find it difficult to be empathic or display typical emotions.
According to the researchers writing for Spectrum, autism does not hinder emotion detection, claiming that since only half of persons with autism have alexithymia, up to 50% of autistic people will be able to process and perceive emotions appropriately. Instead of depending on an awareness of their own feelings, people with autism may utilize other clues, such as context and social rules, to make judgments about what to say and how to behave. People with alexithymia but not autism will find it difficult to understand such signs and subsequently talk or conduct appropriately.
According to Frontiers in Psychology, alexithymia and autism have a “complex connection,” and it’s not always clear how and where they intersect. This may lead to misunderstandings regarding autistic individuals’s emotional and expressive capacities, as well as persons with alexithymia (who may or may not have autism). Autistic persons and those with alexithymia (who may or may not have autism) may have “normal” empathy and feelings, but they will struggle in various ways to express those emotions in ways that neurotypical others would understand and anticipate.
Is Empathy a Skill That Can Be Learned?
People with autism may be trained to increase their empathy levels to a certain extent. According to the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, “people with autism learned how to demonstrate empathy using appropriate words and gestures” in studies where autistic patients are shown roleplaying situations intended to elicit empathetic responses (and are rewarded when they display those responses). Researchers described how they were able to teach empathy to children with autism through a mix of modeling, prompting, and reward for concentrating on another person’s feelings using appropriate words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language in Behavior Analysis in Practice.
These strategies have demonstrated potential in terms of teaching compassionate behavior. Emotional empathy, on the other hand, necessitates the use of additional treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Other research have looked at utilizing animals, particularly horses, to assist autistic individuals acquire emotional empathy. According to Psychology Today, horses are “the ideal therapists.”
Other experts have recommended that schools should include media that teaches children with autism how to perceive and reflect emotions in a manner that does not overstimulate or overload the pupils. The idea is that the learning process should be as painless as possible, which is a good rule of thumb for any patient with autism, but it’s particularly crucial for kids learning how to express themselves effectively and comfortably. “Educator empathy may thereby assist the development of empathy in children with autism,” the researchers conclude.
Empathy and Sympathy and How Autism May Affect Them (In April of 2020). Health is quite good.
People with autism don’t lack emotions; they just have a hard time recognizing them. (April 14, 2014) The Discussion.
Self-Reports to Assess Emotion Regulation Abilities in Adults With Autism Spectrum Disorder: Validity. (May 5, 2005) The Journal of the Association of European Psychiatrists is called European Psychiatry.
Alexithymia. Science Direct is a website dedicated to science.
Impaired Interoception is linked to Alexithymia, not Autism. (2016, August). Cortex.
People with autism are able to read emotions and empathize with others. (Aug. 2016) Spectrum.
The Effects of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Alexithymia on Moral Acceptability Judgments (2015, August). The Journal of Abnormal Psychology is a publication dedicated to the study of abnormal psychology.
Alexithymia’s Role in Autism Spectrum Disorders’ Reduced Eye Fixation (2011, November). The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders is a publication dedicated to the study of autism and developmental disorders.
Facial Emotion Recognition, Alexithymia, and Anxiety and Depression Levels in Patients With Somatic Symptoms and Related Disorders were investigated. (2016). Treatment of Neuropsychiatric Disorders
A Complex Relationship Between Alexithymia and Autism Spectrum Disorder (July 2018). Psychology’s New Frontiers.
13 Teaching Empathy Skills to Children With Autism Through Physical Activity in the Home (Updated February 2013). The Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis is a publication dedicated to the study of human behavior.
Complex Empathetic Responses in Children with Autism: Acquisition and Generalization (2017, January). The Application of Behavior Analysis.
Empathy in Patients With Chronic Pain and the Effects of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (February of this year). Investigation into psychiatry.
There will be no horsing about when it comes to the human-equine bond (July 2016). Today’s Psychology.
“Do autistic people have empathy” is a question that has been debated for many years. The answer to this debate is not clear, but it can be said that most autistic people do not experience “normal” emotions. Reference: do autistic people have empathy.
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Janice is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Special Education. She also holds a Master of Science in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) from Queen’s University, Belfast. She has worked with and case managed children and youth with autism and other intellectual and/or developmental disabilities in home and residential setting since 2013.