One of the hallmark symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is difficulty reading and understanding other people’s emotions, but this does not mean that people with autism cannot feel empathy. Autism and empathy is a highly controversial issue among autism societies. The idea that individuals with autism cannot be empathetic is incorrect, and this idea propagates negative perceptions about people with autism.
Autism and Empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Children and adults with ASD may have trouble reading body language or other non-verbal cues that convey emotion. They may not understand when someone expresses their themselves with idiomatic phrases or metaphors; perhaps they take the language literally and miss the intent. This miscommunication is ultimately a mis-reading issue, which indicates that a person with ASD is not emotionless. Rather, once they do understand what is being conveyed, they can display an incredible amount of empathy and put themselves into the shoes of others.
Autism and Social Cues
Social cues are paramount to communication and navigating oneself through society. Social cues come in all forms, including keywords, tone of voice, a person’s body language, and facial expressions. Children learn and hone the nuances of social cues from an early age, but for those with autism, social cues can be a challenge.
One study published in PLOS ONE looked at how a fearful face with an averted gaze produced different brain activation patterns in individuals with autism versus those without autism. Using fMRI, the researchers were able to track which parts of the brain were most active while the participants observed images of faces with fearful expressions and varying gazes (i.e., no direct eye contact). The fMRI results showed that brain activation did indeed differ between those without autism and those with autism. They concluded that the ASD participants were unable to engage with emotion attribution or understanding of intent. Simply put, the individuals with autism placed more importance on direct eye contact versus the fearful facial expression. This provides just one example of the difficulties those with ASD have when interpreting social cues and other non-verbal modes of communication.
Just because someone with autism has difficulty communicating or understanding the intent of others, it’s not the end of the line. ASD is a complex disorder, and as further work continues, doctors and researchers are continually redefining and rethinking autism. While there is no magic pill to cure autism, there are many resources and interventions to help these individuals build up their social skills and further their participation in their communities. What may seem like small steps—like looking at brain activity for a very specific task—ultimately goes a long way in debunking some of the myths about autism and the emotional and empathetic abilities of those with ASD.
Perception of Social Cues of Danger in Autism Spectrum Disorders: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3852523/