Are empaths autistic? (A Complete Guide)

In this article, we will discuss ‘Are empaths autistic?’. We will do that by describing empaths and people with autism. This will follow up by linking empaths and people with autism. We will further discuss the similarities and differences between these two types of people. In the end, we will answer commonly asked questions related to empaths and autism.

Are empaths autistic? 

Empaths are not autistic. In fact, empaths/highly sensitive people (HSPs) and people with autism are quite opposite to each other. Empaths are able to detect the feelings, emotions, and thoughts of other people. They don’t face any difficulty in understanding another person’s experience. In contrast, people with autism struggle with cognitive empathy i.e. understanding the emotions and distress of other people at an intellectual level. This does not mean that they do not feel other’s pain or don’t care about them. 

Empaths 

An empath can be defined as a highly sensitive person who is able to understand the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of another person.  These people are highly compassionate and can relate to the pain of others.   Empaths are healers by nature and do not hesitate to extend their help to someone who needs it.  They also have strong intuition and can detect connections between emotions, thoughts, and environmental factors that other people can’t. 

Autism 

Autism which is commonly known as Autism spectrum disorder is a  mental health condition that effects how an individual functions socially. People with Autism have a wide range of social deficits.  They lack social skills and have difficulty showing appropriate social behaviors.  In addition to that, they engage in repetitive behaviors and have difficulty understanding nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language. 

The challenges a person with autistic disorder faces may differ from individual to individual.  Similarly, their strengths would be unique to each person. The severity of the social deficits may range from mild to severe.  For example,  one individual with Autism main function well without assistance and only require limited instruction/guidance. In contrast, another person with autism may not be able to function at all without another person’s help.

Autism spectrum disorder manifests as a result of genetic and environmental factors. Its symptoms usually start from ages 2-3.  In some individuals,  the earliest signs have been recorded for 18 months.

Empaths and Autism 

 If we talked about empaths and autism, they are two different people with completely different traits.  It is a common misconception that autistic people have no empathy. Just because people with autism have trouble understanding the emotions of people, it does not mean that they cannot empathize or relate to their pain. The main problem comes when they have to identify the feelings of people. This will be explained as follows:

 There are  two categories of empathy i.e.  Cognitive empathy and emotional empathy

  • Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to understand, label, and detect the emotions of other people and comprehend their experiences from their perspective. This understanding is mostly at an intellectual level.  For example, imagine that person A lost their loved one a week ago and is visibly depressed. Person B would be able to empathize and understand the experience of person A.  They would be able to identify emotions of grief, sadness, and pain of loss that person A is going through.
  • Emotional empathy in contrast refers to the ability to understand emotions and feel them.  People with this type of empathy actively go through the emotional experience of another person.  For example, let’s consider the same example.  Person A lost their loved one until recently.  Person B would be able to empathize by understanding the emotions of grief sadness and pain of losing a loved one as they would be able to connect or relate with person B’s emotional experience by linking their own experience of loss.  Consequently,  they would be able to feel the emotions of person A by actively going through the painful experience with them.

If we talk about people with autism, they struggle more with cognitive empathy.  This is manifested as then having difficulty in understanding what other people are going through and in labeling their emotions.  It does not mean that they cannot connect with the emotional experience of another person nor that they do not feel pain or that they do not care about them.  In reality,  a person with autism may have difficulty identifying the distress of people,  but once they do that,  they can actually be quite caring and extend their support to them in their own way.

Similarities between autism and empaths/Highly sensitive people (HSPs)

Empaths are usually considered highly sensitive people.  Highly sensitive people and people with Autism have many similarities. A few of them include the following:

  • Both are highly sensitive to stimuli in the environment.  This means that changes in light, color,  sound, and even emotional changes in the environment can be quite overwhelming for both of them.  This especially happens to them when they are in public where there is a  chance of overstimulation.
  • Similarly,  both empaths/HSPs and people with Autism react to overstimulation in a similar manner.  People with Autism react with a tantrum or a state of panic.  A similar reaction would be shown by highly sensitive people but less in intensity.  Both of them would need to go to a quiet place with less stimulation in order to recharge and regain their energy.

Differences between autism and empaths/Highly sensitive people (HSPs)

Highly sensitive people and people with autism are quite opposite to each other.  They differ from each other in terms of the following aspects:

  • People with autism have social deficits including difficulty maintaining eye contact, recognizing faces, emotional cues, and reciprocating them.  In other words, they have difficulty mirroring the emotions and nonverbal cues of other people.  In contrast,   a highly sensitive person would not have these deficits.  Rather,  they would be extra sensitive and responsive to all the above stated emotional and social cues. 
  • Social situations are quite rewarding for people who are highly sensitive.  This is because they thrive in social situations by interacting with people and relating to their feelings and emotions.  In comparison,  a person with autism does not find social situations that rewarding because they face difficulty in executing the required social and emotional behaviors.  These situations also disrupt their sense of calm.
  • The brain reactivity of highly sensitive people and people with autism is different. HSP has more reactivity in their brains for areas controlling calmness, self-control, and self-reflection.  Their hormonal levels are also balanced.  Compared to them,  people with autism have less reactivity in these areas.  As a result,  they are less calm,  have difficulty socializing, and expressing emotions.
  • Highly sensitive people and their ability to detect emotions is unrelated to disorders.  In contrast,  Autism is a diagnosable mental condition that disrupts the daily, social, and, occupational functioning of such individuals.
  • Highly sensitive people are at an evolutionary advantage. This is because their ability to detect emotions and understand them, helps them navigate the world in a better way.  Compared to them,  people with Autism are at a disadvantage because they have trouble using this ability while interacting with people.  Social survival becomes quite difficult for them.

FAQs: Are empaths autistic?

Is being an empath a mental disorder?

Being an empath is not a mental disorder. In fact, empaths exhibit very healthy form of traits ad functioning.

How can you tell if you have autism?

One can tell if one has autism based on whether one has social deficits, exhibits repetitive behavior, and difficulty understanding non-verbal cues. A few symptoms include difficulty making eye contact, not responding to one’s name, resistance to being touched, preference for being alone, inappropriate facial expression, and difficulty initiating or maintaining a conversation.

Does autism worsen with age?

Age and severity of autism are linked with each other. As age increases, so does traits of autism including difficulty with social situations, social communication, and flexible thinking.

Is alexithymia a form of autism?

Alexithymia and autism have been linked with each other and often overlap. 

Can a person be slightly autistic?

Yes. The severity of autism ranges from mild to severe. So, a person may have autism but only a mild version of it with no measurable impairments in their social and communication skills or behavior,

Conclusion

In this article, we discussed ‘Are empaths autistic?’. We found that empaths are not autistic. In fact, empaths/highly sensitive people (HSPs) and people with autism are quite opposite to each other. Empaths are able to detect the feelings, emotions, and thoughts of other people. They don’t face any difficulty in understanding another person’s experience. In contrast, people with autism struggle with cognitive empathy i.e. understanding the emotions and distress of other people at an intellectual level. This does not mean that they do not feel other’s pain or don’t care about them. 

 I hope you found this article interesting. If you have any queries or comments, please state them in the comment section 😊

Citations

https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/women-autism-spectrum-disorder/202006/can-i-have-empathy-if-i-am-autistic

https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism#:~:text=Autism%2C%20or%20autism%20spectrum%20disorder,in%20the%20United%20States%20today.

Armah is a mental health professional in training. She has done her Bachelors and Masters in Clinical Psychology with specialization in Cognitive Behavior Therapy. Her goal is to make a difference in the field of mental health be it by spreading awareness through writing or through clinical practice. In her free time, she likes to read, keep up to date about new trends in Psychology, bake and watch Netflix 😊

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