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How are autism and a lack of empathy related?

Researchers recently investigated the link between autism and a lack of empathy, finding that autism is a strong predictor of empathy.

A common trait among those with autism spectrum disorder is difficulty understanding or feeling what others are feeling, known as cognitive and affective empathy, respectively. Knowledge about the relationship between autism and a lack of empathy is limited in part because a lot of the research conducted until now did not differentiate between these two types of empathy. Furthermore, alexithymia, the inability to process one’s own emotions, is often found among individuals with autism, which has led researchers to believe that alexithymia is the reason for the lack of empathy observed with autism. In research published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, a group of researchers used questionnaires on autism, alexithymia, and empathy, to further define the associations between them.

Autism is a predictor of empathy

For the study, researchers recruited 306 men and women online and each participant completed surveys measuring trait autism, empathy, and alexithymia.

The study found that autistic traits and alexithymia were linked with lower levels of empathy. Interestingly, autism was found to be a stronger predictor of empathy, compared to alexithymia. In general, males did tend to have lower levels of empathy compared to females, but neither the sex of the participants nor their ages were found to be linked to autism or alexithymia and levels of empathy. The study was conducted a second time using the same methods, but with a different, large sample of participants, and the researchers found the same results.

Researchers were able to conclude that although alexithymia is prevalent among individuals with autism, it is not the major predictor of empathy; autism is.

Written by Monica Naatey-Ahumah, BSc

Reference: Shah, P.,Livingston, L.A., Callan, M.J., & Player, L. (2019). Trait Autism is a Better Predictor of Empathy than Alexithymia. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-04080-3

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