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Autistic people's feelings mostly misread—empathy works both ways, research reveals

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Autistic people’s feelings mostly misread – empathy works both ways, research reveals Credit: Brunel University

The idea that autistic people lack empathy is simply short-sighted 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 featuring autistic and non-autistic people retelling revealed people without autism find it significantly harder to track autistic people's emotions.

It also revealed people felt 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 . 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 recognizing that, people won't celebrate the joy with them. And if they're feeling sad about something, it's not recognized 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 of 81 participants asked to rate emotions—happy, sad, anger 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, empathizing 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, , 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."

More information: Rachael TS Cheang et al, Do you feel me? Autism, empathic accuracy and the double empathy problem, Autism (2024). DOI: 10.1177/13623613241252320

Citation: Autistic people's feelings mostly misread—empathy works both ways, research reveals (2024, May 17) retrieved 17 May 2024 from

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