A Common Misconception: Alexithymia and Autism
July 19, 2016

It is a common misconception that all children with autism can’t understand emotion and will never be empathetic towards others. This stereotype is incredibly untrue. While it may seem that people with autism don’t show emotion the same way others would, they can understand emotion- just in a different way. According to researchers at the University of East London and King’s College London, many people with autism express empathy, sometimes even an excessive amount of it. However, there are some that still have difficulty understanding emotion. This led the researchers to examine the overlap between alexithymia and autism.

What is alexithymia?

Alexithymia is a construct, not a diagnosis. It’s how those in the psychological field identify people who have difficulty understanding their own feelings and reading the feelings of individuals around them.

About ten percent of the population and fifty percent of individuals on the autism spectrum have alexithymia. People with alexithymia may think they are expressing some sort of emotion, but they often can’t determine what it is. They could be feeling angry, upset, or sad without understanding what they are actually feeling.

Connecting alexithymia with autism

Many people associate alexithymia with autism and may even point to the 50 percent statistic, believing that autism somehow causes alexithymia. It’s important to note, however, that 50 percent of individuals with autism don’t have alexithymia. There is also an extremely large amount of people who have alexithymia, typically found in those struggling with eating disorders, substance abuse, schizophrenia, and a selection of other psychological conditions.

Measuring empathy

So is alexithymia the reason behind that aforementioned stereotype about individuals with autism? Possibly. In the same study, researchers measured empathy in four different groups of people: individuals with autism and alexithymia; individuals with autism but not alexithymia; individuals with alexithymia but not autism; and individuals with neither autism nor alexithymia.

They found that individuals with autism but not alexithymia displayed normal levels of empathy. Those who had alexithymia were overall less empathetic. They also found that autism is not associated with an overall lack of empathy, but alexithymia is.

Individuals with alexithymia may still care deeply about others emotions. In another study, individuals with alexithymia showed far more distress to seeing the pain of others than those without alexithymia. The perceived lack of empathy may come from their inability to understand feelings and what others are feeling around them.

For more information about autism and alexithymia, check out Seven Stars.
Seven Stars combines residential treatment and wilderness therapy to help teens with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

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