The myth that persons with autism are “cold” or “incapable of feeling empathy” continues to be propagated to this day; it is a stereotype associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), yet despite being widespread, it is false.
STEREOTYPES ASSOCIATED WITH ALL AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS
The source of the myth is the confusion between those who have ASD and those who have alexithymia (the latter is characterized by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self and others). Although alexithymia is common in autism (it affects 50 per cent of persons with autism), anyone can have the condition.
According to a recent study carried out by researchers at the International Centre of Advanced Studies (ICAS) in Trieste (Italy), people with autism who are faced with a moral dilemma, respond similarly to the general population. In other words, they have the same level of empathy.
PEOPLE WITH AUTISM IF THEY MATTER THE AJENE SUFFERING
Indrajeet Patil, co-author of the study published in Scientific Reports, notes: “It is not true that people with autism don’t care about the suffering of others. In fact, according to our research, it is exactly the opposite; autism is associated with an abnormal empathy towards others and with a greater tendency to avoid harm to others. The stereotype arises from confusion with a personality construct called alexithymia which is commonly found among people with autism but which can also affect persons who do not have autism.
During the study, researchers presented persons with high-functioning autism with a hypothetical situation in which the decision they made could save many lives by sacrificing one life. The situation involves the classic moral dilemma of whether to intervene to save the lives of a group at the cost of one person, or do nothing and allow the person to live, even if this means many others will lose their lives.
There are two possible reactions to the dilemma. The first is purely rational; it pushes us to intervene voluntarily, taking justified action for the “greater good”. The second, more empathetic stance, leads us to take no action – in this way, we can avoid a voluntary death. Within this context, the researchers designed an advanced statistical model to differentiate the features of autism and alexithymia when participants were faced with a moral dilemma.
The results showed that alexithymia is associated with “a tendency to engage in harmful behaviour with utility-maximising outcome, while autism is related to greater personal anguish and, therefore, a greater likelihood of choosing to not intervene, which demonstrates empathy.”
Patil notes, “Autism is associated with great emotional stress in response to situations in which an individual tends to avoid actions that can result in harm to others.”