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Autism and the Workplace: Empathy

Category: Blogger's Corner, Autism, WORKPLACE, empathy, collaboration

Autism and the Workplace: Empathy

It’s common to hear that autistic people ‘lack empathy’; even the National Autistic Society lists this as an Asperger trait on its ‘triad of impairments’ diagram.[1] However, it’s not the whole story. Empathy is generally thought of as ‘The ability to understand and share the feelings of another’[2]. But recent research suggests that, biologically, there’s no one such thing as ‘empathy’- rather, what we think of as ‘empathy’ is a number of different qualities. Cognitive empathy – the ability to understand the feelings of others – is separate from affective or emotional empathy, the ability to care about the feelings of others.[3] And on top of this, there’s a third category, ‘social skills’, which is our ability to show that we care and/or understand.[4]

This research has also consistently shown that autistic people generally struggle with cognitive empathy and social skills, but their affective empathy isn’t affected;[5] and some studies actually suggest that, on average, autistic people have higher affective empathy than the general population.[6] So it’s inaccurate to claim that autistic people “lack empathy” without further clarification.

However, in the same vein, in can’t be denied that autistic people face real difficulties when it comes to cognitive empathy, and in displaying their empathic reactions. And obviously, this struggle affects autistic people in the workplace – so much of modern work is based upon collaboration, and when you can’t easily understand the thoughts and motives of others that puts you at a clear disadvantage. How can you tell if a person’s genuinely being kind, or putting on an act? How can you tell who to trust and who to be wary of? How can you ensure you present yourself to them in a positive light?

And though an abundance of affective empathy might be seen as a positive trait, it can be less helpful than you’d think. Autistic employees are particularly prone to stress as a result of social interactions.[7] Due to difficulties understanding people, they’re more prone to causing accidental offence – and even if they haven’t, they might misconstrue someone’s reaction as feeling offence, due to a form of ‘social paranoia’ where, having been over-trained to recognise when people are upset, they see it even where it doesn’t exist.[8] Since they actually care deeply about the person, this will cause deep stress – and since they also usually don’t instinctively know how to remedy it, this stress can continue for a very long time.

Fortunately, though, these difficulties can be remedied. Unlike affective empathy, cognitive empathy can, to an extent, be taught[9] – after all, no human is born with the instinctive ability to understand others, or to put ourselves in their shoes, but we learn through experience.[10] In the same way, autistic employees can be taught cognitive empathy (and how to demonstrate this), by explaining to them the unwritten rules of society, and what people’s behaviour generally means. Indeed, several organisations already do so.[11]

Signs most people see as obvious – like when a person does and doesn’t want to talk, or when it’s appropriate to make jokes – can pass an autistic person by, even more so if they’re on the severe end of the spectrum. But once they’re taught how to identify these emotions, they can learn to respond appropriately. (Note the word ‘learn’ here – most autistic people won’t instinctively know how to make things better.[12] But once they’re taught how, by and large they’ll stick to it – having affective empathy, after all, means that they don’t actually want to upset the person.)

When it comes to teaching these skills, though, I’d caution sensitivity - nobody wants to be told that they lack empathy. It might be better to talk about social skills rather than the clinical language of cognitive empathy, since the two are quite similar – and effective teaching needs to encompass both, explaining not just how to understand people, but also how to effectively smooth things over when offence is caused. Alternatively, it might be a good idea to refer to ‘putting yourself in other’s shoes’. But it’d probably be beneficial let autistic people know that you’re aware they don’t lack affective empathy – and that you know most of what they do comes from a good place. Many people refuse to make this distinction – if you take the effort to do so, and understand autistic people better, they’ll be far more likely to listen.

And, finally – expect the message to take a while to set in. It’s common among autistic people – and, let’s face it, among people in general – to see changing their ways as a ‘betrayal’ of who they are.[13] Coupled with this, autistic people have an instinctive desire to stick to a routine (as I discuss in more detail in my post on imagination), so will be reluctant to change.[14] But the fact is, if someone lacks the social skills to convey how they feel, then they’re not coming across as ‘who they really are’. And learning these skills doesn’t need to be a betrayal. I still have the same beliefs, values and goals that I used to – it’s just that now, I know how to effectively put my thoughts and feelings across to others.

Despite these drawbacks, though, autistic peoples’ unique experience of empathy also has its strengths in a business environment. Having high affective empathy, people with autism are more likely to act ethically once they know how to. They’re less likely to engage in corrupt practices, and more likely to consider the wider ethical implications of the business decisions they make – and while they may have trouble communicating their ethical ideals, or understanding how to put them into practice, most autistic people definitely have them. They’re also less likely to abuse their authority, and more likely to take the mission statements of their companies seriously.[15]

It’s especially enlightening, I find, to look at autistic people as the polar opposite of sociopaths or psychopaths. Biologically, psychopaths have intact cognitive empathy, but lack affective empathy, so they know how to blend in and appear caring but actually have no innate regard for others.[16] Psychopaths have great empathetic skills, without understanding the need for it; while autistic people understand the need yet lack the skills. Teach them the skills, though, and they have the potential to become the most empathic person in the room. And through teaching autistic people how to channel their empathy, we can unleash an enormous amount of raw, untapped talent which otherwise would go to waste.

[1] ‘Asperger Syndrome: The Triad of Impairments’, The National Autistic Society, 1st January 2010, retrieved 30th August 2014, http://www.autism.org.uk/working-with/education/educational-professionals-in-schools/breaking-down-barriers-to-learning/asperger-syndrome-the-triad-of-impairments.aspx

[2] ‘Empathy’, Oxford Dictionaries, retrieved 27th August 2014 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/empathy

[3] Chris Allen Thomas, ‘Emotional Empathy and Cognitive Empathy’, Teleos Leadership Institute, 19th July 2013, retrieved 30th August 2014 http://blog.teleosleaders.com/2013/07/19/emotional-empathy-and-cognitive-empathy/

[4] C. Allison, S. Baron-Cohen et al., ‘Psychometric Analysis of the Empathy Quotient (EQ)’, Personality and Individual Differences 51 (2011) 829-835, 4 November 2010, retrieved 30th August 2014, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/09/ten-reasons-people-resist-chang/

[5] Hadjikhani, N, et al., ‘Emotional contagion for pain is intact in Autism Spectrum Disorders’, NCBI, January 2014, retrieved 30th August 2014, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24424389

[6]Hodges, S.D. & Myers, Michael W., ‘Empathy’, In R. F. Baumeister and K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social psychology (pp. 296-298), p. 297. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Retrieved 28th August 2014, http://pages.uoregon.edu/hodgeslab/files/Download/Hodges%20Myers_2007.pdf

[7] ‘Anxiety in Adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder’, The National Autistic Society, 1st January 2010, retrieved 30th August 2014, http://www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/understanding-behaviour/anxiety-in-adults-with-an-autism-spectrum-disorder.aspx

[8] Rick Nauert PhD, ‘Social Challenges in Autism, Schizophrenia Have Different Roots’, Psych Central, 29th February 2012, retrieved 30th August 2014, http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/02/29/social-challenges-in-autism-schizophrenia-have-different-roots/35384.html

[9] Boodman, Sandra G, ‘How to teach doctors empathy’, The Atlantic, 15 March 2015, retrieved 16th March 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/03/how-to-teach-doctors-empathy/387784/

[10] Sue Shellenbarger, ‘Teens are still developing empathy skills’, The Wall Street Journal, 15th October 2013, retrieved 30th August 2014, http://blog.teleosleaders.com/2013/07/19/emotional-empathy-and-cognitive-empathy/

[11] ‘Social skills for adolescents and adults’, The National Autistic Society, 1st August 2014, retrieved 30th August 2014, http://www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/communicating-and-interacting/social-skills/social-skills-for-adolescents-and-adults.aspx

[12] Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, page 97

[13] Rosabeth Moss Kanter, ‘Ten Reasons People Resist Change’, Harvard Business Review, 25th September 2012, retrieved 30th August 2014, http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/09/ten-reasons-people-resist-chang/

[14] ‘Obsessions, Repetitive Behaviour and Routines’, The National Autistic Society, 22nd March 2013, retrieved 30th August 2014 http://www.autism.org.uk/living-with-autism/understanding-behaviour/obsessions-repetitive-behaviours-and-routines.aspx

[15] Lynne Wallis, ‘Autistic Workers: Loyal, Talented, Ignored’, 6th April 2012, retrieved 30th August 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/money/2012/apr/06/autistic-workers-employers-ignorance

[16] Blair, RJR, ‘Empathic dysfunction in psychopathic individuals’, retrieved 15th March 2015,

Vercida works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with Vercida to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please call 02037405973 or email info@vercida.com for more information.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email info@vercida.com for more information.

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