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Nothing about us without us
Who: Fletcher-Watson & Bird
Journal: Autism
Published: 2019
Title: Autism and empathy: What are the real links?

Autism & Empathy

The dictionary defines empathy as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’

There’s no agreed-upon definition of (or measure of) empathy for research.

It’s easier to think about empathy as a set of stages;
1) notice someone else’s feelings
2) correctly interpret these
3) feeling those feelings


Autistic people might struggle with stage 1, as they might rely on verbal expression more than non-verbal signals. They might struggle with stage 2 due to co-occurring alexithymia.

Research into brain activation shows that autistic people do stage 3 (feeling those feelings) in the same way as neurotypical people.

Claims of autistic people having reduced empathy come from a measure called the EQ-60, which measures actually cognitive empathy, emotional reactivity, and social skills, not just empathy. The questions are vague and imprecise, which can cause autistic people to score lower.


More research is required to understand the ways autistic people feel and express empathy with one another, as research has been with a neurotypical person.

Misconceptions about autism & empathy are really damaging for autistic people.

Lack of empathy in autistic people has been linked in research to terrorism, and used to counter philosophical positions, and probably contributes to the violation of human rights in residential care services, and the use of dehumanising language about the autistic community.


It’s really important to actually understand the ways that autistic people do experience empathy, by engaging with autistic people. Some autistic people describe themselves as experiencing “intense, uncontrollable empathy”.

“When you have sensory dysfunction, you are overly tuned to the environment, which includes all the emotions of the people you are interacting with – even the unspoken emotions on their part. The result can be an emotional roller-coaster ride for me as I try to deal with all this bombardment of information in addition to their words. Neurotypical people may assume that we autistics are incapable of empathy, when in fact, we just happen to express it differently. Reactions by way of our facial expressions and body language may not match what society is used to and expects.”
– Hari Srinivasan

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