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Understanding Empathy and Autism

By Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnett

 

Empathy

We know that there are three forms of empathy, cognitive, affective, and behavioural, and that the expression of each is underpinned by similar and different neurological structures in the prefrontal cortex. Cognitive empathy is the ability to determine what someone is feeling or thinking by ‘reading’ their facial expressions, gestures, vocal tone, and the social context. An autistic person may need to use intellect rather than intuitive abilities to identify and process nonverbal communication that they see and hear. Affective or emotional empathy is the ability to ‘feel’ the emotions of others. A recurring theme from our clinical experience of talking to autistic teenagers and adults and reading autobiographies is an over-sensitivity to the negative feelings of other people. Behavioural empathy is knowing how to respond to someone’s feelings. Autism is associated with uncertainty in identifying what is expected to be said or done to alleviate or respond to someone’s feelings.

 

Emotional empathy

A central characteristic of autism is difficulty knowing how to read and respond to the emotions of others (Schwenck et al 2012). However, clinical experience indicates that there is a hypersensitivity to feeling another person’s negative emotions such as disappointment, anxiety or agitation. Autistic individuals have a remarkable capacity to mirror, or amplify within themselves, how another person feels (Fletcher-Watson and Bird 2020). As one of the participants in that study said, “We express empathy differently.” This capacity has been described as empathy over-arousal (Smith 2009) and occurs in both autistic males and females (Schwenck et al 2012). 

We have yet to determine how this capacity is achieved but quotations from autistic adults may provide some indication. 

I am able to distinguish very subtle cues that others would not see, or it might be a feeling I pick up from them.

There’s a kind of instant subconscious reaction to the emotional states of other people that I have understood better in myself over the years

Emotional empathy can occur with all expressions of autism. Robert Hughes (2003) wrote about his non-speaking autistic son, Walker whom he described as being a “supersensitive emotional barometer who registered the true emotional pressure in the air, no matter how hard we tried to mask it”. 

 

Exteroception

We have long recognized that a characteristic of autism is an extraordinary perception of sensory experiences from the external world which we describe as exteroception sensitivity. This can be a heightened sensitivity to sounds, light intensity, tactile experiences, aromas, and tastes. We speculate that exteroception may include a sensitivity to the emotions of other people. An extraordinary ‘sixth’ sense that can be a response to being with someone who is experiencing negative emotions, but also responding to suffering on television news and in documentaries far more than is typical.

In contrast to heightened exteroception, an autistic person can have difficulty with interoception, that is perceiving their own internal sensory experiences, such as not being consciously aware of increasing heart rate and breathing that indicate rising anxiety or agitation. In his autobiography, Aaron Wahl (2019) wrote I perceived the feelings of others often overly clear but could not find access to my own. 

 

Negative and positive emotions

Our clinical experience indicates that there is an extraordinary perception and sensitivity to another person’s negative emotions, as in the comment If someone approaches me for a conversation and they are full of worry, fear or anger, I find myself suddenly in the same state of emotion. Negative emotions in others are ‘infectious’ to an autistic person. One of our clients’ said Emotions are contagious for me. Emotional empathy may be one of the reasons why autistic individuals avoid crowds due to the risk of proximity to someone who is experiencing a negative mood and being ‘infected’ by that mood.

As psychologists, we often try to determine why an autistic person experiences a negative emotion, and one of the reasons may not be due to a specific event or thought but being ‘infected’ by someone’s negative feelings. This may also contribute to a characteristic of autism of avoiding eye contact since the eyes convey feelings (Smith 2009). 

Social withdrawal for an autistic person is not exclusively due to social expectations and sensitivity to auditory, visual, and tactile experiences. Lilian said, We don’t have emotional skin or protection.  We are exposed, and that is why we hide. The sensitivity to the negative mood of others can lead to wanting everyone to be happy. 

While we have found that someone’s negative mood can be contagious for an autistic person, they may not be equally ‘infected’ by someone’s positive mood. They can seem impervious to someone trying to ‘jolly them up’. Happy and exuberant positive emotions in others may sometimes cause an autistic person to be confused and uncomfortable and not know how to respond or resonate with others, for example, at a family celebration or reunion or when someone receives exciting news.

There seems to be a preference for a middle to neutral range of emotions in others, both negative and positive emotions. If there is any greater intensity, the autistic person may become confused, overwhelmed and unsure of what they are expected to do or say.

 

Strategies for coping with empathic over-arousal

As clinicians, we help the person create a mental barrier using the metaphor of protection by putting on amour and using a shield or putting up an umbrella for protection from a downpour of emotions. We also use advice from autistic adults who share the same emotional empathy such as an autistic mother who said: We have lots and lots of empathy, but if it’s too much to deal with you have to just shut it off because it’s so overwhelming (Dugdale et al 2021)

We also advise family members and teachers to be aware of how their negative mood can be contagious to an autistic person and we teach strategies to stay calm and neutral to assist their loved one through difficult emotions. Sometimes parents and partners may try to temporarily suppress their feelings, although an autistic person may be able to sense the emotions behind their mask of neutrality. 

We encourage autistic people to explain their sensitivity to someone’s mood and that the reason for their temporary withdrawal or avoidance of them is a coping mechanism due to emotional empathy and not a rejection of them as a person.

When an autistic person has difficulties with behavioural empathy, that is knowing how they are expected to respond to the distress of another person, they may need clear guidance and encouragement on what to do or say. This could be to suggest that the autistic person gives you a hug that is within their own zone of tolerance, or makes a reassuring comment. 

We now have programmes to help autistic adults read nonverbal communication (cognitive empathy) and develop verbal empathic comments (behavioural empathy) (e.g. Koegel et al 2016).

We also recognize that increased emotional empathy may be an advantage when being with autistic children and adults by being aware of an autistic person’s tolerance of emotional states in others and adjusting their interactions accordingly. We know of many autistic individuals who thrive in the helping professions due to their high levels of emotional empathy.

 

Further information

If you are interested in learning more about emotional empathy and autism and how it impacts on autistic women in particular, we are hosting a full-day webcast for autistic women and family members and professionals who support them on the 28th of October. We hope to see you there!

 

References

Dugdale et al (2021) Autism 25, 1973-1984

Fletcher-Watson and Bird (2020) Autism 24 3-6

Hughes R (2003) Running with Walker Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Koegel et al (2016) Improving Verbal Empathetic Communication for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 46, 921-933

Schwenck et al 2012 Jr Child Psychology and Psychiatry 53:6

Smith, A. (2009) The Psychological Record 59 489-510

Wahl A. (2019) Ein tor zu eurer welt KNAUR