The myth of an empathy deficit in autism is now so well ingrained, that for an autistic volunteer to report they do not lack empathy is either to question the views of the large majority of medical and scientific professionals, or even to deny their diagnosis. As such, they may report empathy deficits even when they frequently experience empathic feelings. The questions in such measures are also often vague and imprecise: it is unclear to whom, or to what group, you should compare yourself; and how to know whether you are quick to notice things. In addition, several questions rely on another’s perception of your competence. When these others are neurotypical individuals who often fail to recognise the emotional and mental states of autistic individuals (Edey et al., 2016; Sheppard, Pillai, Wong, Ropar, & Mitchell, 2016), it is clear to see how such measures may provide information which is of limited value.

there are also many theories about autism, including the notion that autistics lack 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.

These accounts point to a potentially fruitful seam of research, investigating how the sensory profile of autistic people mediates their experience of their own and others’ emotions.

Source: Autism and empathy: What are the real links? – Sue Fletcher-Watson, Geoffrey Bird, 2020

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