Do People with Autism Lack Sympathy and Empathy?

Autism may stand in the way or appearing -- or being -- empathetic.

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What Are Sympathy and Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to feel along with others. Sympathy is the ability to feel for others. People with autism may appear to be unempathetic, responding with little or no affect to another person's grief or joy.Can people with autism feel either empathy or sympathy?

Why People with Autism May Seem Unsympathetic or Unempathetic

As with absolutely everything related to people with autism spectrum disorders, the answer is "sometimes," or "it depends." Sometimes empathy is obvious, but often people with autism have a hard time gauging others' feelings or showing empathy.

When this is the case, it may be the result of a lack of skills rather than a lack of feeling. That's because many of the skills required to understand and respond to others' emotions are precisely the skills that are most likely to be compromised in autism. For example:

  • To empathize with another person, one must recognize the other person's feelings. People with autism have difficulties with "reading" others' faces and body language, and may not fully understand their spoken words.
  • To empathize with another person, one must share the other person's hopes, dreams and/or expectations. People with autism may not, for example, share an intense desire for romantic involvement, ambition to rise up in an organization, or fear of embarrassment.
  • To empathize with another person, one must have the cognitive and emotional experience to relate personally to another's feelings. People with autism may have cognitive challenges -- or they may simply lack the experience necessary to empathize -- even if they are quite capable of sympathizing.
  • To empathize with another person, one must not only feel with that person but also have the tools to show or tell about one's empathic feelings. People with autism may not show or tell about their feelings in ways that are clearly understood by others.
  • To empathize with another person, one must share a cultural understanding that displays of empathy are expected and desired. People with autism may not pick up on cultural cues, and thus may not express empathic feelings even when they are felt.

    What Research Says About Empathy, Sympathy, and Autism

    Quite a bit of research has gone into the question of whether people with autism truly empathize with others; what would stand in the way of empathy; whether empathy can be taught; and whether apparent lack of empathy really reflects a lack emotional connectedness.

    The skill of "mind reading" - understanding anothers' thoughts through careful observation of body language, vocal tone, facial expression, etc. - is key to empathy. People with autism often have a very difficult time with "mind reading," though it's clear that the skills can be taught.

    While Simon Baron-Cohen chalks up lack of mind reading skills to an "extreme male" brain which focuses on systems rather than on relationships, Dr. Uta Frith notes that "failure of bonding or attachment does not appear to be a distinguishing characteristic of autism in early childhood." A related study by Jones et al which compares psychopathic to autistic children finds "the affective/ information processing correlates of psychopathic tendencies and ASD are quite different.

    Psychopathic tendencies are associated with difficulties in resonating with other people's distress, whereas ASD is characterised by difficulties in knowing what other people think."

    While Frith, Jones and others suggest that apparent lack of empathy in people with autism is the result of difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, though, other studies suggest physical differences in the brain might account for lack of empathy. In addition, says one recent study, "Subjects with ASD may use an atypical cognitive strategy to gain access to their own emotional state in response to other people's emotions."

    The Bottom Line

    Bottom line: While many people with autism may appear to lack empathy, the reasons may relate more to social communications deficits than to lack of underlying emotional response. On the other hand, there may in fact be physical differences that make it harder for people with autism to empathize - and show empathy - in a typical manner.

    Sources:

    Simon Baron-Cohen. "Sex differences in the brain: implications for explaining autism." Science. 2005 Nov 4;310(5749):819-23.

    Uta Frith. "Review: Mind Blindness and the Brain in Autism." Neuron, Vol. 32, 969–979, December 20, 2001, Copyright 2001 by Cell Press.

    AP Jones, et al. "Feeling, caring, knowing: different types of empathy deficit in boys with psychopathic tendencies and autism spectrum disorder." J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2010 Nov;51(11):1188-97.

    JA Schrandt et al. "Teaching empathy skills to children with autism". J Appl Behav Anal. 2009 Spring;42(1):17-32.

    M. Schulte-Rüther et al. "Dysfunctions in brain networks supporting empathy: an fMRI study in adults with autism spectrum disorders." Soc Neurosci. 2011 Feb;6(1):1-21. Epub 2010 Oct 13.

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