It is commonly believed that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) lack empathy. A new study challenges the idea that people with ASD do not feel emotions, instead suggesting that people with ASD are overwhelmed by emotion. The study found that people with ASD feel vicarious embarrassment, known as ‘empathic embarrassment’, when they watch another person do something they perceive to be embarrassing. The findings could lead to interventions to help people with ASD regulate their emotions.
Seventeen people with high-functioning ASD and 24 people without ASD participated in the study. The participants were asked to sing, dance, and tell a joke while the researchers recorded their performance. Afterwards, the participants rated how embarrassed they felt. One week later, the participants returned to watch videos of their performance and rate their level of embarrassment. In addition to watching their own performances, the participants watched videos of other people performing the same tasks. The participants told the researchers how embarrassed they felt watching others perform and how embarrassed they thought the performer might be.
The participants with ASD proved to be good at detecting another person’s level of embarrassment. However, the results revealed that the participants with ASD experienced extra-high levels of empathic embarrassment, cringing more than the controls when they watched others perform. Even when the performer reported only mild embarrassment, the participants with ASD were highly empathically embarrassed.
The disconnect between how embarrassed a person feels and how embarrassed a person with ASD thinks someone feels could be a symptom of difficulties with emotional regulation. People with ASD may be overwhelmed by their internal experience of embarrassment, which could prevent them from accurately matching their emotions with other people’s emotions.
The findings are contrary to typical beliefs about the emotional skills of people with ASD. If people with ASD are not making emotional connections because they are overwhelmed, the treatment implications are very different from what they would be if people with ASD simply lacked emotion. The study may lead to better ways for people with ASD to manage their emotions and to cope with social situations.
This research is published in the journal Autism Research.
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