The belief that people with autism are “cold” and “unable to empathize” continues to spread today, a stereotype associated with all autism spectrum disorders (ASD), but although widespread, it is not real.
Stereotypes associated with all autism spectrum disorders
In fact, this myth is given by the confusion of the population between ASD and alexithymia, a trait that defines the inability to identify one’s own emotions as well as those of others and that although it is very common among the population with autism (around 50%) it can be shown in any person.
According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the International Centre for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste, Italy, people with autism who face a moral dilemma respond in a similar way to the rest of the population. That is, they have the same level of empathy.
People with autism do care about the suffering of others
This is how Indrajeet Patil, co-author of the research published in Scientific Reports, explains: “It is not true that people with autism do not care about the suffering of others. In fact, and according to our studies, it is exactly the opposite: the autistic trait is associated with an abnormal empathy towards others and, even, is associated with a greater tendency to avoid causing harm to others. This erroneous stereotype is mostly explained by another personality construct called alexithymia, which is commonly found among people with autism but can also affect people without ASD.
During the study, researchers subjected people with high-functioning autism (with a high IQ) to a hypothetical situation in which the decision they make can save lives while involving the sacrifice of others. The classic moral dilemma in which one must decide to intervene to save the lives of numerous people at the cost of the death of a single individual, or on the contrary, to do nothing, which would prevent the single individual from dying, but which in turn would lead to many people dying.
There are two possible reactions to this dilemma: the first, purely rational, pushes us to intervene voluntarily, to assume an action justified by “usefulness”. But the second, more empathic, pushes us to do nothing and, in this way, we would avoid causing a death voluntarily. In this context, the authors developed an advanced statistical model to differentiate the traits of autism and alexithymia by subjecting them to a “moral dilemma”.
The results showed that alexithymia is mostly associated with a “useful” intervention that moves away from empathy, while autism is related to an increase in personal distress and therefore a greater choice not to intervene, which shows empathy.
As Indrajeet Patil points out, “autism is associated with strong emotional stress in response to situations in which the individual tends to avoid actions that may be harmful to others.