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Do autistic adults understand feelings?

Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects how people communicate, interact, behave, and learn. Autism manifests differently in each individual, with a wide range of symptoms and abilities. One common challenge for autistic individuals is difficulty recognizing emotions and understanding the perspectives of others.

Do autistic adults lack empathy?

There is a common misconception that autistic adults lack empathy. However, research shows that this is not true. Autistic adults have similar levels of empathy to non-autistic adults. However, they may show empathy in different ways.

For example, autistic adults may struggle to recognize emotions from facial expressions or tone of voice. However, many are very caring individuals who show empathy through their actions, like trying to help or comfort someone in distress. With support, autistic adults can learn to better recognize emotions in others.

Challenges with cognitive and affective empathy

While autistic adults have normal levels of empathy overall, research shows they tend to have more challenges with cognitive empathy compared to affective empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy – Understanding another person’s mental or emotional state
  • Affective empathy – Shared emotional response to another’s emotions

So autistic adults may struggle to recognize emotions in others, but still feel concerned for their wellbeing. With life experience and training, autistic adults can learn to improve their cognitive empathy skills.

Differences in brain structure related to empathy

Brain imaging studies have identified structural differences in the brains of autistic adults that may relate to empathy abilities:

Brain Region Difference in Autism Relevance to Empathy
Amygdala Smaller volume Processing emotional stimuli
Fusiform gyrus Less activation when seeing faces Perceiving emotions from faces
Insula Less activation Shared emotional experiences

These differences provide insight into why autistic individuals may have more difficulty with cognitive empathy tasks that involve processing emotional cues from faces and voices.

Theory of mind challenges

“Theory of mind” refers to the ability to infer others’ mental states, like thoughts, beliefs, and intentions. Autistic adults often have theory of mind challenges:

  • Difficulty understanding perspectives different from their own
  • Trouble predicting behavior based on another’s beliefs
  • May have a literal understanding of language

These theory of mind difficulties relate to cognitive empathy, making it harder for autistic adults to intuit what others are thinking and feeling.

How does autism affect relationships?

An empathy difference does not mean that autistic adults cannot have meaningful relationships. However, there are some common challenges:

  • Misinterpreting social cues leading to misunderstandings
  • One-sided conversations due to missing reciprocity cues
  • Unintentionally hurting feelings by being too blunt

With open communication, tolerance, and training in social skills, autistic adults can overcome relationship hurdles. Many report having loving marriages, families, and friendships.

Can autistic adults learn better empathy skills?

Yes, with the right support, autistic adults can improve their empathy skills. Some strategies include:

  • Social skills training – Help recognizing facial expressions, body language, vocal tones
  • Cognitive behavior therapy – Increase perspective taking
  • Roleplaying exercises – Practice predicting feelings in situations
  • Supported employment – Gain work experience interacting with customers

While empathy differences commonly persist into adulthood, autistic adults can learn coping strategies to improve relationships and social functioning.


In summary, autistic adults do not lack empathy altogether, but may have more difficulty with cognitive aspects of empathy. Brain differences and theory of mind challenges impact their ability to intuit the mental and emotional states of others. However, autistic adults show normal levels of affective empathy and caring. With the right support and training, autistic adults can learn to improve their empathy skills and have fulfilling social relationships.