` Autism and Empathy
Autistics don't have feelings, do they?

Do People with Asperger's Syndrome Have Empathy?

The answer is simple -- it depends on the meaning of "empathy".

Relationships With People on The Spectrum

Start With a Definition

"Empathy" relates to sympathy with the feelings of other people.

That doesn't say much. As depicted in a first series Star Trek episode, an empath could read someone's mind to determine that person's emotions or feelings. That's a cute idea for a television show, but it doesn't exist in real life.

What does exist is an innate ability of NTs (neurologically typical people) to read body language to the extent that it is possible to understand some of that person's feelings. Perhaps the lack of that ability (to read body language) is the definitive feature of autism. People on the autistic spectrum ("the Spectrum") are much less able to read someone's body language and are therefore much less able to innately understand that person's feelings.

Another Definition - "Autism"

This reduced ability to read body language means less sympathetic emotions; however, in this case, "sympathetic" is used in the sense of mimicry of emotions.

There is a natural tendency of people to mimic others in their bahaviour. Thus if one person laughs, it is more likely that other people within earshot will laugh. The same occurs with sadness. Empathy comes to play because sadness is not just tears but an entire set of circumstances.

So what happens is that the person on the Spectrum is seen as responding inappropriately to others' emotions. That's because the person on the Spectrum is not connecting through body language.

So in a very real sense, the person on the Spectrum is less empathetic. One would not expect a person on the Spectrum to respond to body language just as you would not expect a deaf person to respond to your voice.

(While we're discussing definitions, "The Spectrum" generally means the autism Spectrum, including Asperger's syndrome, HFA, PDD and Kanner's autism. Many of us are comfortable with the generic reference of "autistic".)

Does that mean they have no feelings?

No. In the commonly understood sense autistics have feelings like anyone else.

If you don't know about an event, you have no feelings about it. So to use an absurd example, you would have no qualms about running over an invisible man.

There are people and events we know about only by reading about them or by hearing the stories. As is the case with NTs, autistics have empathy with people they read about.

An Example

There have been various "gripping" stories in which the plight of individuals have gained international attention. In other words, people around the world have empathy with individuals in the news. Often this is spread through television media.

Theoretically NTs should have more empathy if they've seen a television image, but this is not the case, at least not to any meaningful extent. Most of the images described as "captivating" or "gripping" don't depict body language at all.

More to the point, most people don't seem to have greater empathy because they saw the person on TV. TV does offer a more visual depiction of the event but I hadn't heard of body language issues being a major part of the mix. The most gripping pictures seem to be those in which body language is not apparent.

So clearly the ability of anyone (NTs or autistics) to have empathy for total strangers has little to do with reading of body language.


One of Many Specific Examples

I described a specific example of a news story which evoked empathy without people "reading" body language. The text was too extraneous for inclusion here, and so I posted it separately, under Shalhevet Pass.

What it Feels Like

I for one have a hard time defining emotions I feel. When I see a car I think to myself "car". I really don't need the words for vehicles, however. If I didn't know "big rig" or "semi-truck", I could still easily describe a large truck as opposed to a pickup. That's because I've seen those vehicles, been in them and had driven some. I can easily picture them in my mind and can imagine them near me, and can imagine driving them.

But when it comes to emotions, I really am at a loss to describe much more than the very obvious ones. I don't "see" them, and so they are just internal feelings.

So do feelings not occur to me? I would say they do, even if I only have a very vague idea of "a bad hair day" or whatever that means in less colloqual descriptions of emotions.

Let Me Explain It   (the short explanation)

People with Asperger's syndrome and other autistics have feelings just like anyone else. They have a reduced ability to read body language, but that doesn't mean that they are not sympathetic. Once aware of another's circumstances or feelings, they will have the same degree of compassion as anyone else.

In some circumstances you can expect more in the way of sympathy from someone on the Spectrum. Autistics' compassion is based on information gained empirically (empirical data). Therefore it is likely that the autistic may have compassion even where there is no coincidental body language to go with the event.

So expect someone on the Spectrum not to notice some things, but expect a great deal of compassion - yes empathy - once the situation becomes clear.

The PCL-R Test

The Psychopathy Checklist - Revised (PCL-R) test was developed as a test to measure empathy for determining sociopathic tendencies. This distinguishes between cognative empathy and affective empathy in that it measures the subject's reaction to a depicted circumstance. Since the depiction itself is presumably clear, this would not detect lack of cognative empathy. The purpose of the test is not to detect a person's comprehension of a situation.

Testing Autistics with PCL-R

The PCL-R is a demonstrative example of the distinction between lack of cognative empathy common to autism and lack of affective empathy common to sociopathic personality traits. There is a potential problem with the test itself, however.

A potential problem is that the PCL-R tests do not establish a control. If a person "depersonalizes" an image based on it being an image, that person may have a reduced reaction to an emotionally stimulating photograph.

Consider the effect of a test being administered to a person who has a reduced reaction to images of people. It is possible that the same person would have a stronger reaction to an image of an inanimate object.

This would make the PCL-R a test of whether a person has an adversion to images of people or emotions. This would be useful in determining whether the person would be attracted to websites showing human images unrelated to the product or service, which is not at all relevant to affective empathy or anything else related to the people depicted in the image. That person is not more likely to be a sociopath.

It is very possible that an autistic taking the PCL-R test would register as non-reactive to images depicting emotionally charged scenes, but react very differently to real-life events.

Since affective empathy relates to real-life situations, the PCL-R test results can be an inaccurate as applied to the personality of the subject.

Learning Empathy

As I mentioned, empathy is inherent; the difficulty being in recognising what another is thinking in order to empathise, sometimes called "theory of mind".

Fortunately, this is taught in the form of movies and similar entertainment. Movies must depict emotions by use of subtile and often not-so-subtile cues. While the most obvious emotion depicted is romantic love, other forms of pathos are commonly depicted. While such depictions occur for all age groups (e.g., "Casper" cartoons and Disney movies), adult themed movies seem to depict complex emotions. (Romantic love is also a very important emotion for people on The Spectrum to thoroughly understand -- at least to the extent that the subject of love can be understood at all.) Hollywood goes goes to great effort to depict these emotions through screen techniques. The only disadvantage of people on The Spectrum is that they're not as used to seeing reflections of these emotions.

So if you want to teach recognition of emotions, the movies are a great place to start.

I guess at this point, it's possible to compare depictions of autistics and Aspies with NTs. There are definitely depictions of people on The Spectrum in cinema. Besides the obvious ones like Rain Man, there are a number of representations of autistic-like behaviour:

  1. Spock and Data in Star Trek
  2. Forrest Gump
  3. Punch Drunk Love (Adam Sandler)
    I saw that movie (Punch Drunk Love) with some NTs, and in that case it was the NTs who didn't understand the emotions or motivations of the characters. We saw the movie when it first came out, so I don't think I knew it was "identified" as relating to Aspreger's Syndrome until I saw the character depiction.

As to movies which teach "reading" emotions, it depends on what one likes. There are certainly movies that are less understandable because of their reflections of NT personality, but consider that there are movies which are difficult for anyone to understand. As I mentioned in connection with my experience watching Punch Drunk Love, there are some movies which are more difficult for NTs to understand the emotions depicted than for autistics.

But the idea is to just enjoy the movies and learn!




This is linked to pages on relationships and autistics, and relates to the ability of autistics to establish intimate relationships.

The myth of lack of empathy has been used as some sort of justification for abuse of people on the Spectrum


back to Relationships index

First written 20 August 02; first posted 21 Aug 02. Last revised 28 May 11.

Questions - see FAQs.      

Comments about this site: email me
    www.scn.org/~bk269/



SCN Home Page