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Empathy and Autism/Asperger Research

Posted Mar 20 2009 3:58pm
As part of the ongoing effort to debunk the damaging myth that autistics lack empathy, I'm posting a citation to a research study that addressed the issue: Rogers K, Dziobek I, Hassenstab J, Wolf OT, Convit A. Who cares? Revisiting empathy in Asperger syndrome. J Autism Dev Disord. 2007 Apr; 37(4):709-15.

This is not a new study, as can be seen from the date of the citation, but I don't recall having read any articles on the neurodiversity blogs discussing it. (If anyone wrote a blog entry that I overlooked, feel free to post a link to it in my comments.) The abstract describes the study's findings as follows:


Abstract A deficit in empathy has consistently been cited as a central characteristic of Asperger syndrome (AS), but previous research on adults has predominantly focused on cognitive empathy, effectively ignoring the role of affective empathy. We administered the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), a multi-dimensional measure of empathy, and the Strange Stories test to 21 adults with AS and 21 matched controls. Our data show that while the AS group scored lower on the measures of cognitive empathy and theory of mind, they were no different from controls on one affective empathy scale of the IRI (empathic concern), and scored higher than controls on the other (personal distress). Therefore, we propose that the issue of empathy in AS should be revisited.


The authors explain that "cognitive empathy" refers to the process of understanding another person's perspective, while "affective empathy" is an observer's emotional response to the affective state of others.

In other words, the autistic participants in the study displayed less understanding of others' perspectives than the control group; they showed about the same amount of sympathy and compassion toward others; and they experienced higher levels of personal distress when observing others in distressing situations.

As I have mentioned in previousposts on this blog, tests measuring cognitive empathy and theory of mind are both culturally and linguistically dependent. That is to say, in order to understand others' perspectives accurately, it is first necessary to share common cultural points of reference and to have a sufficiently similar understanding of the words used. The more that a minority community diverges from the majority in its culture and its use of language, the lower its members will score on such tests.

I rather suspect that if anyone were to conduct a research study measuring the ability to understand perspectives that are commonly found in the autistic community, the autistic participants in the study would show more understanding than the non-autistic participants.
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