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Do people with autism have strong emotions?

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that affects how a person communicates and interacts with others. One common myth about autism is that autistic people lack empathy and cannot feel or express emotions strongly. However, the latest scientific research indicates this is not true. People on the autism spectrum have a full range of emotions, even if they show or regulate them differently than neurotypical people.

Do autistic people lack empathy?

No, autistic people do not lack empathy, though they may struggle to show it in neurotypical ways. Many autistic people report feeling just as much empathy as anyone else, though they may have trouble reading others’ emotions or expressing their feelings through facial expressions and eye contact. Some research using brain imaging has even found that autistic people show just as much neurological empathy response as non-autistic people when viewing others in pain. They simply have more difficulty translating that empathy into expected social reactions.

Difficulty expressing emotion

While autistic people feel the full range of human emotions, they often have difficulty expressing those feelings through facial expressions, vocal tone, and body language. For example, an autistic person may not smile or frown to match their internal emotional state. They also tend to have flat or monotone vocal tones that do not reflect how they feel inside. These expression differences can lead others to mistakenly assume the autistic person is cold, robotic, or unemotional. In reality, they are just communicating emotions differently.

Sensory and social differences

Two core differences in autism – sensory processing issues and social difficulties – contribute to these expression challenges. Many autistic people have heightened or reduced sensitivity to sound, light, touch, smell, taste, or other sensory stimuli. Coping with constant sensory overload or lack of stimulation is emotionally exhausting. As a result, autistic people may not have enough psychological resources left to manipulate their facial muscles or voice to match their feelings. Social difficulties like struggling to make eye contact or read body language also make emoting in neurotypical ways harder. However, these expression challenges do not mean autistic people experience inner emotions any less strongly.

Meltdowns and shutdowns

In fact, autistic people may feel emotions even more intensely than non-autistic people. The American Psychiatric Association notes emotional regulation issues are common with autism. For example, autistic people are prone to emotional “meltdowns” or “shutdowns” when overwhelmed. In a meltdown, the person has an intense emotional release like crying, yelling, or throwing things. In a shutdown, they become nonverbal and withdraw entirely. These episodes show autistic people feel emotions powerfully but have more difficulty modulating that intensity.


Some autistic people also have a co-occurring condition called alexithymia that impacts their ability to identify and describe their emotions. People with alexithymia still feel emotions internally but cannot easily label feelings like “sad” or “angry.” However, research shows alexithymia only affects around 50% of the autism population – the rest are able to understand their feelings. And even those with alexithymia still experience the same emotional reactions inside.

Passionate interests

Another sign that autistic individuals have strong emotions is the tendency to develop special interests and passions. When an autistic person finds a topic of interest like art, trains, animals, or video games, they often pursue it with deep enthusiasm and devotion. The intense joy and excitement autistic people radiate when discussing a favorite subject demonstrates rich emotion. Their interests can provide soothing stability during turbulent moods as well.

Sensory pleasures

Autistic people also derive great emotional fulfillment from sensory experiences like listening to music, looking at colorful patterns, rocking, or spinning. While these behaviors may seem unusual, they provide reliable sensory input that many autistic people find intrinsically pleasurable at an emotional level. The powerful emotions evoked by special interests and sensory joys contradict the myth that autistic people are emotionless.

Literal language

Some confusion around autistic emotions also stems from literal language use. Autistic people tend to interpret language concretely rather than reading between the lines. So if asked “How are you?” they may launch into a blunt description of their actual emotions instead of politely saying “fine.” This frank emotional expression can seem inappropriate or oddly intense to neurotypical people. But it reflects authentic inner feelings rather than lack of emotion.

Blunted positive affect

While autistic people certainly experience positive emotions like joy, love, and excitement, some research suggests they show less outward expression of positive feelings compared to negative ones. Scientists are still studying this “blunted positive affect,” but contributing factors may include challenges expressing emotions through the face and voice, poorer eye contact that conveys positivity, and greater threats in daily life that provoke more negative reactions. However, autistic people report feeling just as much inner happiness, affection, and other positive emotions as anyone else.

Monotropic focus patterns

Another emotional difference that can wrongly seem like lack of empathy stems from monotropic attention patterns in autism. This means autistic people tend to focus intently on one thing at a time, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. For example, an autistic child absorbed in a computer game may not seem to notice if a parent falls and hurts themselves in the same room. However, this single-minded focus does not indicate lack of concern. The child simply struggles to simultaneously divide attention between the game and the parent in this moment of stress. Once shifted fully to the hurt parent, the autistic child’s reactions show caring and empathy.


In summary, scientific evidence dispels myths that people with autism lack empathy or cannot feel emotions as deeply. Autistic people have the full human range of emotions, though they may show them through different expressions or struggle to regulate overwhelming feelings. But inner emotional experiences in autism are equally complex and intense. Understanding this distinction between inner emotion and outer expression fosters better empathy and support for the autistic community. Though social emotional communication differences exist, people with autism have just as much heart and ability to care for others.


Study Findings
Dziobek et al, 2008 Autistic adults showed equal activity in empathy centers of the brain compared to controls when viewing emotional videos, even though they had more difficulty identifying facial expressions of emotions.
American Psychiatric Association, 2013 Difficulty regulating emotional reactions is a core challenge associated with autism spectrum disorder.
Berthoz et al, 2013 Around 50% of autistic individuals meet criteria for alexithymia, a difficulty identifying and describing one’s own emotions. The other 50% are able to understand their emotions.
Spek et al, 2010 While autistic people self-report experiencing full range of emotions, they demonstrate less positive emotional expression compared to controls.