• Cory Morrison

Understanding empathy with autism

Updated: Nov 25

Empathy skills and processing emotions

People with autism can struggle to experience or express empathy in the same way other people do.

It is not that autistic people lack emotion, but it is more a lag in skills. According to Verywellhealth, people on the spectrum may not always pick up on feelings, know what a person wants, or understand their own emotional experiences and link them to another person's feelings.

Empathy with Autism
(Photo credit: Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash)

Psychology Today suggests that people with autism can process situations slower than other people. There may be a delay between getting information and making sense of it. Also, their faces could appear still after others have changed their emotions.

Responding example

Person A plays a video game in his room. Person A's mother comes in and says, "Person A, your brother got sick in the car."

Empathy delay:
Person A says, "Oh, okay." Person A keeps playing the game. It's not until he looks at his brother's pale face and understands how scary vomiting in public can be that he feels and expresses sorrow.

Person A either focused too much on the game to process what his mother said, or he didn't put himself in his brother's position to understand why his brother would need sympathy.

Normal empathy:
Person A says, "Oh no! I am so sorry! Please let Person B know that I hope he feels better and gets lots of rest." Person A instantly put himself in his brother's shoes that vomiting in public is not a pleasant experience.

Person A made sense of what his mother said right away. He also immediately thought of what his brother might have felt when he got sick and how he might feel now.

Affective and cognitive empathy

According to Psychology Today, people on the spectrum may struggle with cognitive empathy more often than affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy is to know and understand people's emotions you may not experience currently. This empathy type is also known as putting yourself in someone else's shoes. In the brother getting sick scenario above, Person A not fully understanding what happened at first is an example of cognitive empathy.

Empathy with Autism
(Photo credit: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash)

Affective empathy is to emotionally react to what another person is feeling or thinking. Verywellhealth describes it as instincts and involuntary responses to others' emotions. Person A looking at his brother's pale face when he is sick before feeling sorrow is an example of affective empathy.

According to the Journal of Applied Behavioural Analysis, using dolls or puppets to role-play social situations can help improve cognitive empathy. People who work with autistic people can teach them how to use good gestures, words, tone of voice, and facial expressions. Instructors can also give tokens to the person every time they say a correct response.

Dylan Dailor, an Autism and Neurodiversity Advocate, did a TED talk about autism (Asperger's Syndrome) and empathy in 2016.


While people on the spectrum may be slower to figure out the details of a person's situation to put themselves in their shoes, it does not mean they don't care. Once they understand the circumstances, they can care deeply.

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