The belief that people with autism are «cold» and «unable to empathize» continues to spread today, a stereotype associated with all autism spectrum disorders (ASD), but one that, while widespread, is not real.
Stereotypes associated with all autism spectrum disorders
In fact, this myth is given by the confusion of the population between ASDs and alexithymia, a trait that defines the inability to identify emotions, both their own and those of others, and although it is very common among the population with autism (about 50%) it can be shown in anyone.
According to a recent study conducted by researchers at the International Center for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste (Italy), people with autism who face a moral dilemma respond in a similar way to the rest of the population. I mean, they have the same level of empathy.
People with autism do care about the suffering of others
Así lo explica Indrajeet Patil, co-autor de la investigación que fue publicada en la revista Scientific Reports «it’s not true that people with autism don’t care about the suffering of others. In fact, and according to our studies, it is exactly the opposite: the autistic trait is associated with abnormal empathy towards others and is even associated with a greater tendency to avoid causing harm to others. This mistaken stereotype is largely explained by another personality construct, called alexithymia, which is commonly found among people with autism but can also affect people without ASD.
During the study, researchers subjected people with high-functioning autism (with a high IQ) to a hypothetical situation in which the decision they make may save lives while involving the sacrifice of others. The classic moral dilemma in which one must decide to intervene to save the lives of numerous people at the cost of the death of a single individual, or on the contrary, do nothing, which would prevent the single individual from dying, but which in turn would lead to many people dying.
Faced with this dilemma there are two possible reactions: the first, purely rational, pushes us to intervene voluntarily, to assume an action justified by «usefulness». But the second, more empathetic, pushes us to do nothing and, in this way, we would avoid causing a death voluntarily. In this context, the authors developed an advanced statistical model to differentiate the features of autism and alexithymia by subjecting them to a «moral dilemma».
The results showed that alexithymia is mostly associated with a «helpful» intervention that moves away from empathy, while autism is associated with an increase in personal distress and thus a greater choice not to intervene, which shows empathy.
As Indrajeet Patil points out, «autism is associated with strong emotional stress in response to situations where the individual tends to avoid actions that may be harmful to others.