When you think of someone who lacks empathy, you might automatically think of them as callous or unfeeling. This stigma, when applied to those who have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is harmful and unjustified as the relationship between ASD and the seeming lack of empathy is complex.
At Celebrations Speech Group, our team of compassionate and experienced speech pathologists has extensive experience helping kids and teens with ASD. The communication challenges that come with ASD can be great, on both ends, and understanding how some people with ASD have difficulty recognizing and expressing their feelings and emotions is paramount.
Before we get into the possible connection between ASD and a lack of empathy, let’s first review what we’re referring to when we say empathy.
The first step in empathy is to recognize the outward signs of a problem in a person and then to interpret these signs.
Once you process that the other person is “in distress,” you internalize and mirror the emotion, feeling the emotion as the other person does.
And then you respond.
As you can see, there’s a chain of events that take place when it comes to empathy — from recognition, to processing, to responding.
Feeling versus expressing
Now that we understand the steps that create empathy, we want to underscore that empathy isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Many people with ASD have trouble expressing their emotions, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t experiencing them or recognizing them in others.
In other words, people with ASD may feel great empathy, but they don’t know how to outwardly display this emotion according to societal norms (tears, indignation, etc.)
ASD and alexithymia
There are people with ASD who develop issues with identifying and processing their emotions, a condition we call alexithymia. Around 50% of those who have ASD also have alexithymia, but it’s important to note that one can have ASD alone and alexithymia alone and the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
With alexithymia, the inability to recognize and display empathy also comes with an inability to identify and understand other emotions, such as happiness, anger, fear, surprise, and so on.
When a person with alexithymia is unable to identify an emotion on a cognitive level, it follows that they won’t be able to experience the emotion and respond.
While alexithymia describes a person’s inability to name and respond to their own emotions, it also extends to the emotions of others. Emotions are two-way streets that are complicated when ASD is present.
With ASD, one might have trouble reading the expressions of others, preventing them from responding accordingly. When alexithymia is added to the mix, it creates a type of emotional blindness that manifests both within the person’s own self and in an inability to recognize and process the emotions of others.
Treating ASD and alexithymia
As specialists in communication and expression, our goal is to help people with ASD (and alexithymia) to better identify and respond to the emotions of others, as well as their own. Through group sessions, as well as individualized therapies, we work with kids and adults to help them better understand, and respond to, the world around them.
If you’re concerned about a perceived lack of empathy in a loved one, we urge you to contact one of our locations in Brentwood, Stockton, or Elk Grove, California, for expert help.