Israeli study: People with autism don’t have less empathy, paradigm shift needed

In-depth, peer-reviewed research finds people with autism have a gap between the ability to empathize emotionally and knowing how to respond and process the feeling

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Emotion emoticons used by a psychologist during a therapy session with a child with autism. (iStock)
Emotion emoticons used by a psychologist during a therapy session with a child with autism. (iStock)

Israeli psychologists say their new research should spur a sea change in understanding how people with autism experience empathy.

It is widely believed, by experts and by the general population, that people with autism have lower levels of empathy.

In recent years, psychologists have been delving deeper. In some cases, they have suggested that autistic people have a good ability to feel the emotional state of others and wish to respond, but struggle to recognize what the emotional state is and know how to respond. These are often termed, respectively, affective or emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.

A peer-reviewed 1,905-participant study led by Ben Gurion University represents one of the most ambitious data-driven attempts to explore the relationship between different aspects of empathy.

It argues that people with autism don’t always have lower empathy levels than others — and says that in some cases the level of emotional empathy is actually higher.

It suggests that the biggest empathy-related challenge faced by autistic people in the realm of empathy isn’t low empathy. Rather, it is a lag between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.

Among non-autistic people, levels of the two broadly match, meaning that when they feel the experiences of others via emotional empathy, they have the cognitive empathy to decide on and execute an appropriate response.

Dr. Florina Uzefovsky, one of the psychologists behind the study, told The Times of Israel: “What we found is that people with autism feel affected by situations — in some cases even more so than others do — but have a cognitive understanding of the situation that lags behind their emotional response.”

A boy holding a colorful puzzle heart in front of his face to raise awareness for World Autism Day. (iStock via Getty Images)

Uzefovsky worked on the study, which was published in Autism Research, with Ben Gurion University colleague Ido Shalev, Dr. Alal Eran of the Department of Life Sciences and Boston Children’s Hospital, and collaborators at the University of Cambridge and Bar-Ilan University.

The research is based on detailed questionnaires, representing the most in-depth study of how emotional and cognitive empathy are experienced among people with autism to date.

“It shows that it is too simplistic to say those diagnosed with autism lack cognitive empathy or they lack emotional empathy,” commented Uzefovsky. “Instead, we need a more nuanced understanding of how the two empathies relate to each other, which we believe can aid in diagnosis and in understanding some autistic traits.”

Dr. Florina Uzefovsky of Ben Gurion University (Dani Machlis)

She said that if the discourse shifts to focus on gaps between the two types of empathy, therapists will be able to better understand autistic patients, and society will be able to better address stigmas.

“The way of looking at things that we’re suggesting connects much better to the experience of individuals, and it allows us to better understand their social experience,” said Uzefovsky.

“A better understanding of the experience of the individuals helps us understand what happens and design interventions — therapies — that better help. And it’s important for stigmas because in the general public people with autism are thought to simply have lower empathy. If people grasp the subject better, they will be able to better understand individuals with autism.”

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