We May Have Been Wrong About Autism And Empathy

People with autism make moral decisions in a similar manner to those without the condition, according to a new study.
New research suggests that we were wrong about autism and empathy.
New research suggests that we were wrong about autism and empathy.
ChristianNasca via Getty Images

Individuals with autism are often stereotyped as being socially disengaged and lacking in empathy, which has increased stigma against the disorder.

Often, these misperceptions are linked to criminal cases, such as school shootings, committed by people with autism spectrum disorders.

But new research, published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that while social deficiencies are one aspect of autism, this stereotype is nothing more than a myth. In fact, individuals with autism are far from indifferent to the suffering of others.

“It’s a common but very unfortunate misunderstanding that individuals with autism do not care for other people, or that they don’t love other people,” Dr. Paul Wang, senior vice president of medical research for the research and advocacy organization Autism Speaks, who was not involved in the study, told The Huffington Post. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

When faced with moral dilemmas, they show an empathetic response similar to those without the condition, Dr. Indrajeet Patil, a social neuroscience researcher at the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, and a co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post in an email.

“We found that autistic individuals did not in any way differ from healthy controls in terms of their moral decisions,” Patil said. “Indeed, they made moral decisions which indicated that they were on average more averse to causing harm to others, even if this produced better outcomes.”

For the small study, the researchers asked 17 adults with high-functioning autism and 17 adults without the condition to respond to a series of hypothetical moral dilemmas.

For instance, two of the scenarios asked them whether they would voluntarily take an action that would cause the death of one person in order to save many others.

In these scenarios, pure rationality dictates that you should do it in order to save as many lives as possible, while empathy prevents most people from choosing to kill someone.

The findings revealed that the individuals with autism showed strong emotional distress at the prospect of killing one to save many ― even more so than people without the condition.

“Autistic traits are associated with increased self-oriented distress and anxiety when individuals are asked to immerse themselves in harmful situations,” Patil said. “So these traits are not associated with any anti-social tendencies.”

Where does the stereotype come from, then? The trait that can sometimes lead individuals with autism to be seen as cold or lacking empathy is called alexithymia, which roughly 50 percent of people with autism and 10 percent of the general population have. It’s caused by differences in emotion processing and results in an inability to understand one’s own emotions and the emotions of others.

Dr. Giorgia Silani, cognitive psychologist at the University of Vienna and the study’s lead author, noted that interpersonal difficulties are still a central aspect of autism ― which is why autism is still associated with difficulties in socializing.

However, the bottom line of these findings is that people with autism do not lack concern for others and are no more likely than those without the condition to cause harm.

A previous reference to the prevalence of “theory of mind” impairments in those diagnosed with autism has been removed, as research on this point is not settled.

Before You Go

What Autism Means