This Study Confirmed What We Already Knew About Autism and EmpathyA. Stout
In October of 2015, the internet ignited with roars of fury and indignation at a Facebook page that spawned from fear, ignorance, and hate: “Families Against Autistic Shooters.” Word got out that the Oregon shooter was on the spectrum, so the page’s creators stuck the entire autism community into a box, stating that those on the spectrum were “cold, calculating killing machines with no regard for human life” and had “soulless, dead eyes.”
This incredibly hurtful myth—that people with autism cannot feel empathy—existed before the Oregon shooting, and unfortunately, it will persist until we educate as many people as possible about autism. But one study, published in late March 2016, can help us out with dispelling that notion.
The study looked at 17 adults with mild autism, as well as 17 adults without autism. These individuals were presented with several moral dilemmas, like this familiar one, for example: if you had to kill one person in order to save many people, would you do it?
The purely rational response would be “yes.” Those who are more driven by empathy, however, would say “no.”
Researchers found that the responses from the two neurodiverse groups did not differ. In fact, the adults with autism were even more distressed than the neurotypical people at the notion of having to cause someone harm!
This result just comes to show that people with autism do not lack empathy. In fact, as the study’s lead author, Indrajeet Patil stated, “The autistic trait is associated with a normal empathic concern for others and is actually associated with greater tendency to avoid causing harm to others.”
The myth that has sparked social stigma actually comes from confusion between autism and a separate, subclinical condition called alexithymia. Those with this condition cannot articulate their own feelings or understand the feelings of others. It affects half of people with autism AND 10 percent of the general population. So while alexithymia is common among those with autism, it is neither unique to nor a defining characteristic of the disorder.
However, people with autism do have a reduced sense of what’s called theory of mind. That means they have trouble perceiving the emotions and thoughts of others. But this does not mean they don’t care about people or have empathy for them.
Hopefully this new study will help bash these stereotypes and stigmas that surround autism. Myths like these are dangerous, isolating, incredibly hurtful, and need to stop.