Reexamining empathy in autism: Empathic disequilibrium as a novel predictor of autism diagnosis and autistic traits

Ido Shalev, Varun Warrier, David M. Greenberg, Paula Smith, Carrie Allison, Simon Baron-Cohen, Alal Eran, Florina Uzefovsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

A large body of research showed that autistic people have intact emotional (affective) empathy alongside reduced cognitive empathy. However, there are mixed findings and these call for a more subtle understanding of empathy in autism. Empathic disequilibrium refers to the imbalance between emotional and cognitive empathy and is associated with a higher number of autistic traits in the typical population. Here we examined whether empathic disequilibrium predicts both the number of autistic traits and autism diagnosis. In a large sample of autistic (N = 1905) and typical individuals (N = 3009), we examined empathic disequilibrium and empathy as predictors of autistic traits and autism diagnosis, using a polynomial regression with response surface analysis. Empathy and autistic traits were measured using validated self-report questionnaires. Both empathic disequilibrium and empathy predicted linearly and non-linearly autism diagnosis and autistic traits. Specifically, a tendency towards higher emotional than cognitive empathy (empathic disequilibrium towards emotional empathy) predicted both autism diagnosis and the social domain of autistic traits, while higher cognitive than emotional empathy was associated with the non-social domain of autism. Empathic disequilibrium was also more prominent in autistic females. This study provides evidence that beyond empathy as was measured thus far, empathic disequilibrium offers a novel analytical approach for examining the role of empathy. Empathic disequilibrium allows for a more nuanced understanding of the links between empathy and autism. Lay summary: Many autistic individuals report feelings of excessive empathy, yet their experience is not reflected by most of the current literature, typically suggesting that autism is characterized by intact emotional and reduced cognitive empathy. To fill this gap, we looked at both ends of the imbalance between these components, termed empathic disequilibrium. We show that, like empathy, empathic disequilibrium is related to autism diagnosis and traits, and thus may provide a more nuanced understanding of empathy and its link with autism.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1917-1928
Number of pages12
JournalAutism Research
Volume15
Issue number10
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2022

Keywords

  • autism
  • cognitive
  • emotional empathy
  • empathy
  • response surface analysis

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Genetics(clinical)
  • General Neuroscience

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