This blog explores why autistic individuals may come across as apathetic, the link between alexithymia and autism, and why the misconception that all autistic people are apathetic has even come about.
Are all autistic people apathetic?
No, people with autism spectrum disorder are not inherently apathetic. However, this is still a huge misconception from allistic people when it comes to understanding how people with autism process emotions and other stimuli. Often times, this is due do a lack of understanding of how autistic people process emotions, or even due to a lack of knowledge of phenomena such as Alexithymia (Which isn’t surprising, as I myself didn’t even know it had a name until recently).
What is Empathy and Apathy?
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share feelings of another person. Apathy is defined as a lack of interest or concern of a given subject. While it may be easy to assume that all autistic people are apathetic, it’s not that simple. Often times when people assume apathy of an autistic person, it is more often than not a variety of conflicting factors.
For example, people with autism struggle when it comes to picking up and responding to social cues. This can lead to them being unable to recognize what emotions another person may be feeling. Autistic people are less likely to pick up emotions based on facial cues. This is because they are more likely to focus on the periphery of a face. This is opposed to the eyes and mouth, where people usually display their emotions as stated in this article by Antonella Marchetti.
What is Alexithymia?
Alexithymia is a neuropsychological phenomenon more commonly known as ’emotional blindness’. It is characterized by difficulties in recognizing, expressing and describing a person’s own emotions. Alexithymia occurs approximately occurs within 10% of the general population, and can often co-occur with various other mental disorders. Additionally, people with alexithymia may intentionally appear unempathetic and display inappropriate emotional exchanges.
Does everyone with autism have Alexithymia?
Alexithymia is not a core feature of autism. However, studies have shown that varying degrees of it has been noted in between 50-85% of people with autism. Although individuals on the autism spectrum experience alexithymia at much higher rates than the general population, autism and alexithymia are distinct and overlapping conditions in which alexithymia seems to influence affective empathy.
Why do these autism misconceptions exist?
The answer is quite simple, really. Representation and understanding. There are very few depictions of autistic people in current media that aren’t either infantilized or demonized for the autistic traits they display. One of the biggest examples of this is Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Yes, he does exibit traits that coincide with that of autistic people, but he’s not written well. He is written in such a way that he either comes across as a callous jerk for displaying little empathy, or as childish for the ‘rituals’ he takes comfort in.
What can be done to reduce these misconceptions?
Among many things that can be done, on of the most important is the de-stigmatization of autistic representation in media. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as providing more realistic portrayals of autism, and offer more input from autistic individuals. For a more in-depth look at how this might be done, check out Maia Turner’s blog on autistic representation in media. Another thing you can do is simply share information on the subject. Sharing this blog will spread information on the topic to a wider audience. It will also also allow us to reach a wider audience and explore topics like his even further.