Autism and Empathy (Liz McGarry)

After discovering the truth about the “80% divorce rate” a few weeks ago, I’ve been wondering what other autism myths might be out there. Dr. Ariel suggested I look into the commonly held belief that people with autism are incapable of empathy. This was a topic I hadn’t really thought too much about, so, naturally, I headed to the Internet to educate myself.

My initial results weren’t exactly what I expected. I was pretty surprised to find papers by Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the most prominent leaders in autism research, claiming the exact opposite of what I set out to prove; namely, that people with autism exhibit less empathy than typically developing individuals. However, after some serious digging, I came to realize that Baron-Cohen’s definition of empathy is very different than my own. When I think of empathy, I think of compassion. The ability to care about someone other than yourself. Even from my own limited experience with autistic individuals, I know without a doubt that people with autism are able to form meaningful relationships and care about others. So what is Baron-Cohen talking about?

What I have come to understand is that there are two different kinds of empathy: Cognitive and Emotional (or Affective). Research, like this study from Haifa, Israel, shows that these two types of empathy are independent of each other, and even use different parts of the brain. Here is a basic description of each:

Cognitive Empathy (Relative Weakness in Autism): The kind of empathy that Baron-Cohen usually refers to as a relative weakness in autism is known as cognitive empathy. This is the ability to take another person’s perspective and ‘get inside their head’. This term has nothing to do with care or compassion—it simply refers to the ability to “infer what someone else is thinking or feeling”.

Emotional Empathy (NOT a Weakness in Autism): On the other hand, affective or emotional empathy is closer to my original understanding of the word. Emotional empathy is “the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to someone else's mental states.” Research shows many people with autism are capable of this kind of empathy, and are fully able to form compassionate, meaningful relationships. A study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2008 showed “while individuals with AS are impaired in cognitive empathy, they do not differ from controls in emotional empathy,” (Dziobek et.al).

Many people with autism have difficulty understanding and predicting people’s emotions. This seems to be an accepted fact. I have learned, however, that this does not mean they are incapable of caring about others. When they do understand what others are feeling, autistic individuals are capable of just as much compassion (“emotional empathy”) as everyone else.

Click here for a video of Dr. Naseef, Dr. Stephen Shore, and Dr. Dan Gottlieb discussing autism and emotions.


Sources:

Dziobek, Isabel, Kimberley Rogers, Stefan Fleck, Markus Bahnemann, Hauke R. Heekeren, Oliver T. Wolf, and Antonio Convit. "Dissociation of Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Adults with Asperger Syndrome Using the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET)." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 38.3 (2008): 464-73. Print.

Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., J. Aharon-Peretz, and D. Perry. "Two Systems for Empathy: a Double Dissociation between Emotional and Cognitive Empathy in Inferior Frontal Gyrus versus Ventromedial Prefrontal Lesions." Brain 132.3 (2009): 617-27. Print.