One of the most common myths about autistic individuals is that they don’t feel empathy towards others. There are two interrelated types of empathy: affective or emotional empathy, which involves feeling an appropriate emotional response to another person’s emotion, and cognitive empathy, or Theory of Mind (ToM), which involves understanding or predicting another person’s perspective. The affective component of empathizing involves feeling an appropriate emotion triggered by seeing/learning of another’s emotion. When engaged in affective empathy, we vicariously experience the emotional states of others, understanding that our feelings are not ours, but rather those of the other person. Sympathy is also considered an affective component of empathy. It is the feeling or emotion triggered by seeing or learning of someone else’s distress which moves you to want to take an action that will help ease their suffering.
The cognitive or ToM component of empathy involves the understanding and/or predicting what someone else might think, feel, or do. It is the ability to identify cues that indicate the thoughts and feelings of others and “to put oneself into another person’s shoes.” It is also referred to as “mentalizing,” “mindreading,” and “perspective taking.” The ability to reflect on one’s own and other people’s minds (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination and emotions) allows us to interact effectively with others in the social world. ToM may also be thought of existing on a continuum with some individuals able to “mindread” relatively easily and intuitively, while others experience varying degrees of problems interpreting and predicting another person’s behavior. Most (but not all) typical individuals are able to mindread relatively easily and intuitively. They can read another person’s facial expression and body language, and tone of voice and recognize his or her thoughts and feelings, and the likely course of their behavior. In other words, they interpret, predict, and participate in social interaction automatically, and for the most part, intuitively. Often referred to as "mindblindness," it is this cognitive component of empathy that is delayed in autism.
Unfortunately, the failure to understand the difference between affective empathy and cognitive empathy has led to a persistent myth and stereotype that people with autism are individuals who lack empathy and cannot understand emotion. It’s critically important to recognize that autism is characterized by challenges associated with cognitive empathy (ToM), not emotional empathy which is intact. Although autistic individuals may have difficulty with social cues and understanding and predicting another’s thoughts, motives and intentions, they have the ability to care and be concerned about other people’s feelings. Autism does not deprive someone of emotional empathy! Autistic people can and do experience feelings and emotions intensely as everyone else, even though it may not always be obvious to others in a "typical" way.
Key References and Further Reading
Baron-Cohen, S. (1991). The theory of mind deficit in autism: how specific is it? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9. 301-314.
Baron-Cohen, S., Jolliffe, T., Mortimore, C., & Robertson, M. (1997). Another advanced test of theory of mind: evidence from very high functioning adults with autism or Asperger Syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 38. 813-822.
Baron-Cohen, S., Ring, H. A., Bullmore, E. T., Wheelwright, S., Ashwin, C., & Williams, S. C. R. (2000). The amygdala theory of autism. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 24(3), 355-364.
Baron-Cohen, S., & Swettenham, J. (1997). Theory of mind in autism: Its relationship to executive function and central coherence. Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders, 880-893.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2000). Theory of mind in autism: A fifteen year review. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. TagerFlusberg, & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Understanding other minds: Perspectives from developmental cognitive neuroscience (pp. 3–20). New York: Oxford University Press
Fletcher-Watson, S, McConnell, F, Manola, E & McConachie, H 2014, 'Interventions based on the Theory of Mind cognitive model for autism spectrum disorder (ASD)' Cochrane database of systematic reviews. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008785.p
Begeer S. Theory of mind interventions can be effective in treating autism, although long-term success remains unproven Evidence-Based Mental Health 2014;17:120.
Fletcher-Watson S, McConnell F, Manola E, McConachie H. Interventions based on the Theory of Mind cognitive model for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD008785. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008785.pub2
Gray, C. A. (1998). Social stories and comic strip conversations with students with Asperger Syndrome and high-functioning Autism. In E. Schopler, G. B. Mesibov, & L. J. Kunce (Eds.), Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism? (pp. 167-194). NY: Plenum Press.
Hutchins, T., & Prelock, P. A. (2008). Supporting theory of mind development: Considerations and recommendations for professionals providing services to individuals with ASD. Topics in Language Disorders, 28 (4), 340-364.
O’Brien, K., Slaughter, V. & Peterson, C.C. (2011). Sibling influences on theory of mind development for children with ASD. J Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 52(6), 713-719.
O’Hare, A.E., Bremner, L., Nash, M., Happe, F., Pettigrew, L.M. (2009). A clinical assessment tool for advanced theory of mind performance in 5 to 12 year olds. JADD, 39(6), 916-928.
Sprung, M. (2010). Clinically relevant measures of children’s theory of mind and knowledge about thinking: Non-standard and advanced measures. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 15(4), 204-216.
Tager-Flusberg, H. (2001). A reexamination of the theory of mind hypothesis of Autism. In J. A. Burack, T. Charman., N. Yirmiya., & P. R. Zelazo (Eds.), The development of autism: Perspectives from theory and research (pp.173-193). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Wellman, H. M., Baron-Cohen, S., Caswell, R., Gomez, J. C., Swettenham, J., Toye, E., & Lagattuta, K. (2002). Thought-bubbles help children with autism acquire an alternative to a theory of mind. Autism, 6(4), 343-363.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2011). Mindblindness in Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development, Part 13, 955-956, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_1795
Wilkinson, L. A. (2015). Overcoming Anxiety on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. London and Philadelphia.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, NCSP is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He provides consultation services and best practice guidance to school systems, agencies, advocacy groups, and professionals on a wide variety of topics related to children and youth with autism spectrum disorders. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also editor of a best-selling text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).