Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that can affect behavior and social communication. However, it is a misconception that autistic people do not feel empathy.

This article will examine the relationship between autism and empathy, what current research says, and where to find support if needed.

A father having an intimate moment with their son who may have autism.Share on Pinterest
Mayte Torres/Getty Images

Empathy is the ability to understand the mental states of others and to respond to them with appropriate emotion. It allows a person to put themselves in another person’s position.

A 2018 study notes that empathy plays an important role in social interactions.

Examples of empathy can include:

  • understanding why a person is angry
  • relating to a person who is upset
  • feeling genuinely happy because someone else receives good news

Learn more about the science of empathy and why we care.

Some characterizations suggest that autistic people do not feel empathy. However, research indicates that rather than lacking empathy, autistic people may have imbalances in empathy skills compared with neurotypical people.

ASD is a spectrum disorder. This means there is a broad range of symptoms a person can experience.

The National Institute of Mental Health notes that autistic people often experience difficulties with communication and interaction, which may affect how they respond to social cues. This may lead to a perceived lack of empathy in certain situations.

Learn more about the features of autism.

Below, we explore how an autistic person’s cognitive processes may differ from a neurotypical person’s and how this relates to empathy.

Thought processes

The thought processes of autistic and neurotypical people may differ.

A 2016 study states that autistic people may be better at logical and rational thinking versus intuition. This may affect how they read the emotions of other people.

Research from 2021 also suggests that autistic people may think less about other people than neurotypical people do. A study examining the thought processes of autistic and neurotypical people asked groups of autistic and neurotypical people to rest for 5 minutes with their eyes closed and to let their minds wander.

Researchers found that autistic people had fewer “theory of mind” thoughts — thoughts about others and thoughts placing the self in another person’s shoes — than neurotypical people. Instead, autistic people experienced more internal monologues and greater awareness of their surroundings than neurotypical people.

Learn more about the different types of autism.

Recognizing emotions

Autistic people may have difficulty identifying the emotional behavior of other people. For example, they may have trouble identifying that a person is crying because they are happy rather than sad.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) notes that autistic people may have difficulty interpreting nonverbal social cues. This may include gestures and facial expressions, such as smiles or grimaces.

For example, if someone says, “I’m OK,” but exhibits nonverbal signals of distress, such as sighing and being quieter than usual, their behavior may indicate they are upset.

While a neurotypical person may pick up on those mixed signals, an autistic person might believe the person is OK rather than interpreting their nonverbal expressions. Practicing direct communication can help people recognize social cues.

NAMI also states that autistic people may express emotions differently than neurotypical people. For example, their facial expressions or tone of voice may not always match what they are feeling.

Learn more about the different levels of autism and the criteria for diagnosis.

Potential bias

Autistic people may respond differently to some social cues. However, not always picking up on subtle cues or “reading between the lines” does not mean a person lacks empathy.

Research from 2019 suggests that autistic people might sometimes be “incorrectly judged as lacking empathy” because they do not follow the same social norms as neurotypical people.

However, neurotypical people largely dictate these social norms, and there are social biases against people who do not follow social expectations.

The fact that autistic people may respond to social cues in a way that does not match neurotypical expectations does not mean their responses are incorrect or lack empathy.

Learn more about what autism looks like in the brain.

Current research states that, like neurotypical people, levels of empathy vary between autistic individuals.

According to a 2021 study, some researchers believe that autism-related social difficulties may arise from sensory overload rather than a lack of empathy.

The “intense world theory” states that certain brain regions are overactive in autistic people, which may magnify their sensory experiences.

This theory suggests autistic people might experience sensory and information overload that can lead to significant fear and anxiety about social stimuli.

Learn more about current research into autism.

Doctors diagnose ASD over 4 times more often in males than females, though autism may be underdiagnosed in females.

Research suggests there may be some differences in autistic traits between males and females. For example, a 2022 study suggests that autistic females have higher emotional empathy than autistic males. Emotional empathy is the ability to respond appropriately to another person’s mental state.

The “extreme male brain theory” suggests that autistic people of all genders may have a more “male” brain, wired to rationalize rather than empathize.

A large research study from 2018 tested the extreme male brain theory in over half a million people. The researchers suggest that, on average:

  • females were more empathetic
  • males were more systems-oriented
  • autistic people show a more “masculinized” profile

However, this theory is based on gender stereotypes and may be affected by how people receive different kinds of socialization according to gender. As such, the results may not reflect inherent differences between genders in autistic and neurotypical people.

Learn more about autism in females.

Alexithymia is a personality trait that means a person has difficulty expressing or identifying emotions.

People with alexithymia feel the same emotions as others but are less able to notice and understand their own emotions and the emotions of other people.

While not all autistic people have alexithymia, there appears to be an overlap. Research from 2018 suggests that around half of autistic people have alexithymia.

Though many people believe empathy to be an innate trait, studies suggest people can learn it to some extent.

A 2018 study examined whether theory of mind training could improve empathy in autistic children aged 8–13.

After having weekly hour-long training for 8 weeks, autistic children who received theory of mind training had significantly higher levels of empathetic responsiveness than those without training.

Research from 2017 suggests that autistic children may demonstrate more empathy during equine therapy sessions. Researchers noted that therapy with horses might also facilitate the emergence of apparently social behaviors, such as the following:

  • eye contact
  • pointing
  • speech

However, further research is still necessary to investigate the effectiveness of equine therapy.

Learn more about animal therapy.

If a person thinks they or their child may be autistic, they may want to speak with a doctor or mental health professional.

Doctors and mental health professionals can perform tests to diagnose autism in both adults and children. They can also rule out other causes that might explain a person’s symptoms.

The following organizations provide resources and support for autistic people and their loved ones:

Though autistic people may respond to emotions and social cues differently than neurotypical people, this does not mean they lack empathy.

Just like neurotypical people, levels of empathy vary between autistic individuals. Around half of autistic people have alexithymia, which can lead to issues with empathy and understanding emotions.

A person who thinks they or their child may be autistic can speak with a mental health professional for more information and to work out next steps.