There’s a common misconception that Asperger’s and empathy don’t mix, but just because people on the autism spectrum may experience empathy differently doesn’t mean they lack it.
Asperger’s syndrome is an old term for what’s now considered “high functioning” autism. Originally, it was a name attributed to Hans Asperger, who outlined a specific pattern of social interaction and communication challenges — but with no significant language or intellectual impairment.
As autism spectrum research grew, the consensus shifted away from seeing Asperger’s as a separate condition and toward including it as a form of neurodivergence on the autism spectrum.
Many people still identify with the term “Asperger’s.” So, while it’s no longer a formal diagnosis, it’s still a widely used moniker.
As a manifestation of autism, Asperger’s is often associated with a lack of empathy — a myth that continues to persist despite an improved understanding of neurodivergence.
This assumption came from early observations that people living on the spectrum appeared to have less emotional reactivity in empathetic scenarios, compared to neurotypical people.
Since that time, the understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has evolved. Current research supports the position that ASD does feature empathy, but like many other aspects of neurodivergence, it’s simply different from the neurotypical experience.
Rather than high cognitive empathy, living with Asperger’s may mean you have high affective empathy.
Cognitive empathy vs. affective empathy
Empathy, on the whole, is the ability to relate to another person. Cognitive empathy allows you to see things from their perspective, while affective empathy, or emotional empathy, is being able to feel what they’re feeling as if it were happening to you.
The ability to empathize comes from how you process and interpret emotional information like facial expressions, tonality, or language.
Autism is a form of neurodivergence, which means many of the ways the brain interacts with external input are different from that in a neurotypical person.
“Some aspects of autism, like anxiety, sensory issues, and restricted interests, can interrupt the process of interpreting emotional information that an autistic person takes in,” explains Cat Carson, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Seattle.
“They might be focused on their special interest, or managing a sense of overwhelm, or trying to focus on stimming to help regulate their nervous system.”
She adds that all of these behaviors can prevent you from being present with the feelings of those around you in a way that would be considered socially appropriate.
A lack of action or response doesn’t mean that you lack empathy. Carson points out that you can still accurately interpret the feelings of those around you but not be able to showcase that understanding in the moment.
Empathy varies between people, and it’s possible for someone living with ASD to lack empathy. This isn’t likely because of autism, however, but because of a condition called alexithymia.
According to a meta-analysis from 2019, as many as
The biggest myth to debunk is that people living with ASD don’t experience empathy.
Megan Tangradi, a licensed professional counselor from Northfield, New Jersey, explains, “Everyone has different levels of empathy, regardless of whether or not they have autism. Autistic people may simply have a different way of expressing their empathy than others.”
Myth: People with Asperger’s have empathy, but not as much as neurotypical people
While many people living with autism have lower levels of cognitive empathy, they may have an excess of emotional empathy.
“In some ways, autistic people are taking in more emotional information from their environment than neurotypical folks,” says Carson.
Myth: Living with Asperger’s means you don’t care about others
Expressing empathy differently can sometimes come off to others as self-centered or unfeeling, but this isn’t the case.
Lower cognitive empathy may mean you don’t recognize when a situation is upsetting, for example, but high affective empathy allows you to realize another person is unhappy.
Expressing empathy can be a big part of showing affection. It communicates to someone else that you care about them and what they’re going through.
Differing forms of empathy expression can play a role in the formation of relationships, but there are plenty of other ways to let someone know they’re important to you.
“People with ASD show affection in all of the varied ways that neurotypical people do,” Carson states. This can include giving compliments, offering gifts, spending time together, and sharing experiences. Sometimes special considerations have to be made — just as in any relationship.
“For example,” she says, “if someone has sensory issues around physical touch, it may be important that they choose how and when they are touched, or they may find physical touch unpleasant.”
Differing empathy expression isn’t a barrier to affection. It’s something that can be accommodated, just like other aspects of individuality.
Asperger’s was once defined by significant challenges, specifically in social communication and interaction — core components of emotional intelligence.
Research suggests that lower cognitive empathy may be one reason why people living with ASD tend to score lower on emotional intelligence assessments.
Living with Asperger’s, or “high functioning” autism, doesn’t mean you lack empathy. If anything, you may be more highly attuned to the emotions of others, just not as attuned to their circumstances.
Different empathy expression doesn’t mean you don’t care. It isn’t a barrier to love or affection. It’s a characteristic of neurodivergence that can be accommodated through recognition and understanding.