Home Mental Health & Well-Being Non-Autistic People Struggle to Identify Emotions in Autistic People

Non-Autistic People Struggle to Identify Emotions in Autistic People

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The idea that autistic people lack empathy is simply shortsighted, and non-autistic people may find it just as hard to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, a study suggests.

A paper in the journal Autism, flips the script on the often-said stereotype that autistic people have difficulty imagining how others feel.

Participants shown video clips featuring autistic and non-autistic people retelling emotional events revealed that people without autism find it significantly harder to track autistic people’s emotions.

It also revealed people felt the emotions more intensely in the body when seeing clips of autistic people compared with non-autistic people. This was magnified when they talked about anger and fear.

It has strong implications for social and therapeutic relationships with autistic people, said autistic researcher Rachael Cheang at Brunel University London’s Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience.

“There’s always this feeling that people with autism lack empathy. That’s usually what you hear, but these results are quite shocking because they’re contrary to how we normally think of it.”

This is the first experimental evidence to show that, rather than lacking empathy, autistic people instead see the world differently, and non-autistic people struggle to understand their emotions just as much as the reverse. Called the “double empathy problem”, this theory by Dr Damian Milton emerged in the early 2010s. An idea many autistic people agreed with, but until now hasn’t been shown by science.

“This impacts how autistic people are viewed,” said Mrs Cheang. If they’re feeling happy about something and nobody’s recognising that, people won’t celebrate the joy with them. And if they’re feeling sad about something, it’s not recognised that that person might be upset or sad about something. So, then they’ll be lacking support or commiseration from people around them.”

Cognitive psychologists measured the autistic traits of 81 participants and asked them to rate emotions – happy, sad, angry, and fear – in video clips of people across the spectrum talking about their emotional experiences. In a separate task, they were asked to identify the emotions of people in the videos, gauge their intensity, and place them on a body map. They were all kept in the dark about the diagnosis of the people shown.

Autistic people are at a higher risk of suicide than non-autistic people. Between 11 and 66% of autistic adults think about suicide during their lifetime, and up to 35% plan or attempt it, according to figures from 2020. Mrs Cheang says: “Obviously, I’m wondering now if part of that is being driven by the fact that nobody’s understanding them, empathising with them, you know, feeling what they’re feeling.”

“The implications are wide,” said research group leader Dr Ignazio Puzzo. “It’s important for caregivers, people working in education, therapists, doctors, hospital staff, and doctors to be aware of these differences and focus on improving understanding or noticing how an autistic person is feeling to help alleviate their struggles and improve their well-being.”

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