People with autism may suffer an imbalance between their abilities to recognize other people’s emotional states and to respond to them appropriately, say researchers.
They conducted a study in which 1,900 participants who had autism, and 3,000 who didn’t, answered online questions designed to assess their level of what they term “empathic disequilibrium”.
The research group led by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev found that those diagnosed with autism exhibited higher rates of the imbalance. In other words, they may be less able to recognize somebody’s else’s emotional state, but if they do, they may over-react.
Their findings were published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Autism Research.
The team is proposing a new concept for predicting autism and autistic traits, namely empathic disequilibrium.
It combines two widely recognized types of empathy – cognitive, or recognizing the emotional states of others, and emotional, or responding to that state with an appropriate emotion – into a single scale for the first time.
Earlier research largely found deficits in cognitive empathy among those diagnosed with autism, although that contradicts reports of people with autism having too much emotional empathy.
“It is too simplistic to say those diagnosed with autism lack cognitive empathy or they lack emotional empathy. We need a more nuanced understanding of how the two empathies relate to each other, which we believe can aid in diagnosis and in understanding some autistic traits,” said Dr Florina Uzefovsky, from the university’s Department of Psychology.
Each type of empathy is “rooted in distinct yet interrelated neurobiological evolved mechanisms,” but balance between these aspects is needed for social functioning.
Those diagnosed with autism may have levels of empathy that are comparable to that of the general population, but a relative overabundance of emotional empathy may hinder some social interactions. Hence, empathic disequilibrium.