The link between autism and feeling misunderstood - study

Autism is a common neurodevelopmental condition and is characterized by marked social difficulties, especially in communication.

 The brain (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
The brain (illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

A new concept for predicting autism and traits of the condition has been proposed by a research group led by psychologists and neuroscientists in Beersheba, Ramat Gan, Boston and Cambridge. 

Empathic disequilibrium combines two types of empathy into a single scale. Cognitive empathy, which refers to the ability to recognize other people's mental states; emotional empathy means responding to another’s mental state with an appropriate emotion. 

Autism is a common neurodevelopmental condition and is characterized by marked social difficulties, especially in communication. The difficulty in communicating may partially explain why many autistic people are vulnerable to exclusion, show high rates of mental health difficulties including depression and anxiety, and often report feeling misunderstood by others.

“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.”

Dr. Florina Uzefovsky 

Previous research generally – but not always – found deficits in cognitive empathy among those diagnosed with autism. But this contradicted what some autistic people reported as having too much empathy.

 Dr.Florina Uzefovsky. (credit: DANI MACHLIS/BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY OF THE NEGEV) Dr.Florina Uzefovsky. (credit: DANI MACHLIS/BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY OF THE NEGEV)

Now, Dr. Florina Uzefovsky and Ido Shalev, from Ben-Gurion University’s psychology department and its Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, Drs. Alal Eran of BGU’s life sciences department and Boston Children’s Hospital, and their colleagues at the University of Cambridge and Bar-Ilan University propose looking at how cognitive and emotional empathy interact through a new concept they have termed empathic disequilibrium. 

Their findings have just been published in the journal Autism Research under the title “Reexamining empathy in autism: Empathic disequilibrium as a novel predictor of autism diagnosis and autistic traits.” 

A nuanced approach is critical

“It is too simplistic to say those diagnosed with autism lack cognitive empathy or they lack emotional empathy,” insisted Uzefovsky. “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.”

Each type of empathy is “rooted in distinct yet interrelated neurobiological evolved mechanisms,” the researchers wrote. “A 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.”

The team conducted a study of 1,905 people diagnosed with autism (54% females, age ranging from 18 to 80, and 3,009 typical controls (75% females, age 18 to 92). Participants filled in online questionnaires to assess their empathic disequilibrium. 

The researchers found that those diagnosed with autism exhibited higher rates of empathic disequilibrium, but they also found that this disequilibrium was useful for analyzing empathy in the non-autistic population as well.

“This concept opens up several interesting avenues of research into autism and into empathy,” Uzefovsky concluded.