Science confirms it: People with autism also have empathy; Autism Spectrum Disorder


It has been one of the most viewed videos on the Internet in recent days: a child with autism gets excited when his parents take him to a Coldplay concert , a group that has heard a thousand times at home. The child ‘s emotional reaction as has been much discussed, but perhaps especially for those who have a misconception about what is now known as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Autism Spectrum Disorder

One of the most painful thorns for parents of children with ASD is to hear how upset their children is trivialized in the language of the street. Unfortunately, even the own dictionary of the Royal Academy legitimizes the metaphorical sense of the termautism as a person “in her own world, consciously removed from reality” , a derogatory and inappropriate use raises the rejection of parents and associations .

As if this were not enough, people with ASD and their relatives are forced to suffer further misunderstanding caused by sensational reports attributing autism – related disorders some criminals. An example is a Facebook page promoting hatred against people with ASD, describing them as “cold and calculating machines to kill without any respect for human life” because of his alleged “lack of empathy and compassion.”The Facebook page prompted an article in the newspaper The New York Times and collected signatures for withdrawal ; and it is not currently active.

SOCIAL DEFICIT, nonaffective – Autism Spectrum Disorder

Now, finally, the relatives of people with ASD can have scientific arguments in its favor. And in some cases, science is limited to certify what for some was already being an obvious reality. “Yes, recent findings in this area seem to confirm the intuition that parents and relatives of people with autism have long had” confirmed to The Huffington Post researchers Indrajeet Patil and Giorgia Silani, the International School for Advanced Studies Trieste (Italy) and the University of Vienna (Austria).

But they warn that the systematic and controlled studies are essential: “These anecdotal reports should be taken with a pinch of salt because they may be contaminated by bias, no one would admit that his son or relative lack of empathy, even if the case so objective scientific studies are important. ” Autism Spectrum Disorder

Science confirms it: People with autism also have empathy; Autism Spectrum Disorder
A 4-year-old autistic boy undergoing intensive therapy at the Mifne Center in the northern Israeli town of Rosh Pina is viewed through the spectacles of a care worker in an observation room, February 22, 2001. The center, which operates unique early intervention treatment for young autistic children and their families, was established in part with a $200,000 grant from Marc Rich through his Rich Foundation. When the fugitive financier sought a pardon from former United States President Bill Clinton, he turned to powerful friends in Israel for help where over the past 20 years, according to Avner Azulay, head of the multimillion-dollar foundation, he has contributed $70 million to $80 million to Israeli charities, hospitals, museums, symphonies and to the absorption of immigrants. (Photo by David

A child with autism, therapy in the Mifne Center of Israel.

One of the signature features of autism is a deficit in the ability of social interaction and this is precisely the trait that has led many to the belief that these people lack empathy and emotional connection with those around them. But in recent years, psychologists have begun to circumscribe the typical disorder called autism to social cognition domain. According to one theory, everyone is at an intermediate point between two extremes, empathizing and systemizing, or the emotional and analytical.The theory suggests that people with ASD tend to end systematic, so experience a shortfall in their ability to capture and manage their mental states and those of others.

This does not imply they are not able to feel the suffering of others and empathize with them according Patil and Silani, this does not depend on a cognitive route, but affective, and this is not necessarily altered in people with ASD. In fact, this failure has put him in the last decades a specific name: alexithymia, which literally means “no words for emotions”. the fact that alexithymia occurs most often in people with ASD is given; between 40 and 65% have both conditions, while in the general population is estimated that there is only 10% alexithymic. But Patil and Silani warn: autism and alexithymia are two different things, and lack of empathy only has to do with the second.


Patil, Silani and his colleagues underwent a group of volunteers to a test called task moral dilemma used in psychological research to determine the ability to make decisions that affect the lives of others. The present method is based on two scenarios.In both, the death of one person will prevent many other, but in one action you should take the participant is indirect and death ensues as collateral damage. By contrast, the other must be he who deliberately cause the death that otherwise would not occur. An example of the first type is the decision to divert a runaway train heading towards a group of workers, to place it in another way in which there is only one person. In the second case, volunteers to judge if someone would push in front of the train to stop and save the group was asked.

The researchers studied the responses of a group of 15 people with autism, of which seven had also alexithymia, while there was no alexithymic in the control group. Prior knowledge dictates that most people divert the train, but would push someone; ie, act on so-called impersonal dilemmas, but not personal. For psychologists, this pattern represents the effect of empathy, rejection deliberately harm someone even to save more people. Autism Spectrum Disorder

Some previous studies had shown that people with autism may choose more often the solution to save the group in the personal dilemmas, which previously has been linked to the stigma of the lack of empathy. However , in their study, published in the journal Scientific Reports group Nature , the authors note that previous studies have not only been more limited, but more importantly, did not analyze the presence or absence of alexithymia in participants with autism. Autism Spectrum Disorder

“Some studies have found deficiencies in empathy in autism, while others do not, because the composition of alexithymic may differ greatly in the study samples and must take into account this effect,” said Patil and Silani. By introducing this factor, the result is clear: there is no difference between participants with autism and controls when it comes to moral dilemmas. In fact, interestingly, the controls were even slightly more likely than autistic choose the option called utilitarian in personal dilemmas, that of pushing someone to the track.

Science confirms it: People with autism also have empathy; Autism Spectrum Disorder
Science confirms it: People with autism also have empathy; Autism Spectrum Disorder

As the researchers predicted, yes there is a greater tendency to this utilitarian solution trait associated with alexithymia. “What our study and previous suggest it is that when you consider the concomitant effect of alexithymia, autistic no longer show any empathy deficit or any other measure of emotional processing,” say Patil and Silani. Autism Spectrum Disorder

Alexithymia, a trait almost unknown – Autism Spectrum Disorder


All this shows once again that ASDs are a catchall very heterogeneous “and a contributing factor to this heterogeneity, at least in the domain of emotional problems, is the feature of alexithymia”, highlights two psychologists . The study invited to consider this feature as something that sometimes occurs simultaneously, but different from, autism. And yet, for the authors it is still a mystery why this feature appears more frequently linked to the TEA. “It’s a very interesting question, but unfortunately there is still no satisfactory answer,” he said.

Patil and Silani suggest that both traits, autism and alexithymia, seem to relate to different brain regions. “It is likely that there may be common factors, genetic and environmental risk factors that produce a deficit connectivity simultaneously in several brain regions, and this will also result in the development of alexithymia” venture. But they recognize that much remains to be learned about the genetics of autism, let alone of alexithymia: “The state of affairs is still too immature”.

With regard to alexithymia, it seems that much or more than there is to know about autism, but it seems remarkable that this trait receives less attention, given that itself is associated with a lack of empathy. “Today is not considered a clinical disorder, but only one personality trait that appears in the population in varying degrees,” said Patil and Silani. The two psychologists believe that further studies are required to define precisely, but for now there are no grounds to classify it as a disorder.”Although this does not exclude the possibility that what is in the future,” they conclude. Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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