Debunking the myth of Autism Spectrum Disorder: “Individuals with autism cannot understand the emotions of others”.

By: Rim El Hasbani


More and more schools nowadays are advocating for inclusive classrooms and learning. That is, classrooms that cater for both students with typical development as well as students with learning difficulties. Inclusivity also involves students on the spectrum and other developmental and learning difficulties. While advocating for inclusive learning, it is important to address the misconceptions that prevail ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and debunk it to increase awareness and acceptance. Schools in the Arab region need to go the extra mile and push for this agenda in its classrooms to achieve this goal.

Autism spectrum disorder has often been associated with several concepts that are incorrect, invalid, and not based on scientific research. Through time, many research studies were conducted that debunked most of the myths associated with autism. Despite this, many individuals still believe in those myths and unfortunately many individuals with autism are harmed in this process. By associating false information to autism, we do not only contribute to misleading people, parents and individuals, but also jeopardize the treatment and intervention plans of autistic individuals. This leads to harmful interventions that affect their normal development and progress.

This article will discuss one of the myths that are associated with autism and autistic individuals. The myth is: “Individuals with autism cannot understand the emotions of others”. In the first section, the origin of the myth is discussed along with the evidence that support it. In the second section of the paper, the counterarguments are presented, and the myth is therefore debunked.

Finally, the article ends with a conclusion that concludes the finding and proposes future recommendations.

Origin of the myth and supporting evidence:

Evidence that supports this myth emerged early on and they were based on very preliminary research and relied heavily on animal studies (Ashwin et al., 2006). The myth is mostly supported by “the amygdala theory of autism” which is a term that was coined and first emerged in a study conducted by Baron-Cohen et at., in 2000. The study supports the claim that the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional processing, is damaged in individuals with ASD and hence why, they often have trouble understanding the emotions of others (Baron-Cohen et al., 2000). To support their claim, the researchers have conducted comparative studies on animal models (Baron- Cohen et at., 2000). They have also compared through the brain imagining the process of emotions for individuals with autism and patients with amygdalotomy (damage in the amygdala). Findings suggest similarities in both responses as well as weaker amygdala response and activation in both groups as well when asked to identify the emotional response displayed by images (Baron-Cohen et al., 2000). The results from this finding seem to support other research focusing primarily on emotional response and facial emotional recognition for young children (Maestro et al., 2002) and adults (Dalton et al., 2005). Results from the study conducted by Maestro et al., (2002) suggest that faced with a social stimulus, children with ASD will tend to shift their attention to a non-stimulating social stimulus. However, the results are not conclusive and do not actually align with theories that support lack of emotional awareness and expression in children with ASD (Maestro et al., 2002).

The validity of those studies does not stand strong as they have been refuted by several studies in later years. For instance, previous evidence claimed that individuals with ASD and patients with amygdalotomy displayed the same emotional response, or lack of response because of defects in the amygdala. However, this has been refuted later as studies have shown that differences are way more abundant than actual resemblance in those two groups (Ashwin et al., 2006).

Evidence against the myth:

It is fair to claim that the argument of the amygdala size and activation no longer stands in the way and supports such claim. In fact, many studies have shown that the amygdala of individuals with ASD can be larger, smaller or the same size of normally functioning individuals. This only proves a neuro diversity in the individuals tested as the same results would also stand in the research on control population. Individual differences, as well as neurological differences are normal and expected within individuals of diverse or even similar background. Consequently, the argument can no longer be used to justify such a claim. Abell et al., (1999) conducted an experiment on 15 individuals with ASD which purpose was to test, observe and analyze their brain functioning. The results of MRI screening show an increase in the amygdala size of individuals with ASD compared to the control group (Abell et al., 1999). In contrast, a study by Aylward et al., (1999), shows the exact opposite by conducting MRI studies on individuals with ASD (n:14) and neurotypical individuals (n:14). Results show that the amygdala of individuals with ASD was smaller than their counterparts (Aylward et al., 1999). Last, other studies show no difference at all in the size of the amygdala for individuals with ASD compared to their counterparts (Haznedar et al., 2000). This largely suggests that differences in amygdala size could also be explained by genetic differences between individuals as well as environmental factors.

Besides the amygdala argument, an increasing number of studies, published in well reputable peer reviewed journals have proved that individuals with ASD are in fact capable of understanding the emotions of others and can feel empathy. A study conducted by Bird et al., (2010) investigated empathy in individuals with ASD and a control group. What is interesting about this study is that the “empathic brain” in both autistic individuals and neurotypical individuals was compared in accordance with alexithymia traits in neurotypical developing individuals (Bird et al., 2010). Alexithymia is a personality trait characterized by the inability of the individual to experience empathy or understand the emotions of others (Bird et al., 2010). Results of the functional magnetic resonance imaging show that the brain of individuals with ASD reacts the same as the brain of individuals with normal functioning regarding empathy feelings (Bird et al., 2010). However, the brain of individuals displaying alexithymia traits seems to be less active when tested for empathy (Bird et al., 2010). This finding suggests that lack of empathy in individuals with ASD could be explained by a comorbidity with alexithymia personality trait rather than a diagnosis with autism on its own (Bird et al., 2010).


The above article discussed one of the most argued and controversial myths on autism. Autistic people are often stereotyped as individuals who cannot feel empathy and who do not understand the feelings and emotions of others.  Although this topic is still controversial, research succeeded in debunking this myth through evidence based meta-analysis and studies that were published in peer reviewed journals and articles.

The first section highlighted the origin of the myth and gave a clear understanding of the rationale behind it and its supporting evidence. The organic basis of this myth that claims that autistic individuals are incapable of understanding other people’s emotions was refuted by several well reputed neuro-imaging studies that were replicated through time. Findings also proved that the amygdala differs in size also in individuals without autism proving that individuals with autism who are incapable of expressing empathy feelings probably have a comorbidity with another disorder.

It is vital to understand the harmful implications that this myth has on autistic individuals. Spreading false information such as claiming that autistic individuals cannot understand the emotions of others can contribute to the stigma associated with autism. Additionally, it can also cause harmful practices to individuals with autism. Future research should also work on spreading awareness amongst people and communities in the purpose of protecting the vulnerable and ensuring not only their safety, but also easy access to interventions and implementations that will help them develop, grow, and integrate in a healthy manner in a society.





Aylward, E. H., Minshew, N. J., Goldstein, G., Honeycutt, N. A., Augustine, A. M., Yates, K. O., et al. (1999). MRI volumes of amygdala and hippocampus in non-mentally retarded autistic adolescents and adults. Neurology 53, 2145–2150. doi: 10.1212/WNL.53.9.2145

Abell, F., Krams, M., Ashburner, J., Passingham, R., Friston, K., Frackowiak, R., et al. (1999). The neuroanatomy of autism: a voxel-based whole brain analysis of structural scans. Neuroreport 10, 1647–1651. doi: 10.1097/00001756-199906030-00005

Baron-Cohen, S., Ring, H. A., Bullmore, E. T., Wheelwright, S., Ashwin, C., and Williams, S. C. (2000). The amygdala theory of autism. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 24, 355–364. doi: 10.1016/S0149-7634(00)00011-7

Bird, G., Silani, G., Brindley, R., White, S., Frith, U., & Singer, T. (2010). Empathic brain responses in insula are modulated by levels of alexithymia but not autism. Brain (London, England : 1878)133(5), 1515–1525. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awq060

Chris Ashwin, Emma Chapman, Livia Colle & Simon Baron-Cohen (2006) Impaired recognition of negative basic emotions in autism: A test of the amygdala theory, Social Neuroscience, 1:3-4, 349-363, DOI: 10.1080/17470910601040772

Dalton, K. M., Nacewicz, B. M., Johnstone, T., Schaefer, H. S., Gernsbacher, M. A., Goldsmith, H. H., et al. (2005). Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism. Nat. Neurosci. 8, 519–526. doi: 10.1038/nn1421

Haznedar, M. M., Buchsbaum, M. S., Wei, T. C., Hof, P. R., Cartwright, C., Bienstock, C. A., et al. (2000). Limbic circuitry in patients with autism spectrum disorders studied with positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance imaging. Am. J. Psychiatry 157, 1994–2001. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.157.12.1994

Maestro, S., Muratori, F., Cavallaro, M. C., Pei, F., Stern, D., Golse, B., et al. (2002). Attentional skills during the first 6 months of age in autism spectrum disorder. J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry 41, 1239–1245. doi: 10.1097/00004583-200210000-00014

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