Released in mid-April, a study we conducted produced new insight into how people on the autism spectrum read emotions.
According to our work, the difficulties that these people may have in interpreting the feelings of others will be limited mainly to situations among humans, and will avoid those that involve all other sentient beings. They will not have any particular problem communicating emotionally with animals.
What can studying our perceptions of organisms teach us about the mechanisms of human empathy and the cognitive disorders associated with it?
How can we make use of it to better support or better understand the autism spectrum?
Empathy, the key to deciphering other people’s feelings
Despite the many definitions and a wide range of concepts associated with this ambiguous concept (emotional empathy, compassion, theory of mind, emotional contagion, etc.), empathy generally determines our ability to perceive and infer intuitively, through the mirror effect, emotions, and mental states of others. Like all neurocognitive characteristics of humans, our empathic capacities are a result of the evolution of our species, and our predisposition to empathy is determined in part by our genes.
At the basis of all human emotional and positive communication (a set of social behaviors directed toward the benefit of others), empathy is in a way that can be compared to the cognitive bedrock of ‘living together’. Its mechanisms are complex, still poorly understood, and are the subject of dynamic research in cognitive science.
Disorders of sympathetic faculties and the relationship with other species
Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs, such as typical autism or Asperger syndrome) define a family of more or less pronounced neurodevelopmental disorders, among others characterized by diminished faculties of empathy. Many people with autism spectrum disorder find it difficult to intuitively understand the emotional states of others, or to perceive what has not been said during a discussion. These atypical empathic faculties are at the root of difficulties in terms of social integration, and can negatively affect the quality of life of the people involved.
However, despite the relational difficulties they may encounter, several studies show that people with autism, paradoxically, have no particular difficulty communicating emotionally with animals: they can form strong emotional bonds with their four-legged companions and appear to be more The ability to search and process. The emotional signals on the faces of animals are more than those on the faces of humans. How do we explain this phenomenon?
Our relationship to the diversity of living things has a strong emotional dimension, the expression of which varies greatly from one species to another: on a country road, running over a hare can be overwhelming, while the multiple influences of insects on windshields often leave us indifferent.
A study published by our team in 2019 made it possible to highlight the fact that this “species distinction” rooted in our influence was a powerful phenomenon, most likely innate.
This is based on the fact that the evolutionarily close we are to a species, the more we resemble it. Then it will be easier for us to perceive within her the alter ego (anthropomorphism), to understand her mental states and, accordingly, to be influenced by her destiny. So we think we understand better—and are more influenced by—the feelings of an orangutan than of a mouse, of a mouse than of a fish, and so on.
A new approach to a new study
From this observation came the idea to use this gradation of empathic sensitivities in relation to life as a reference to explore the empathic characteristics of people with autism in the framework of a new study.
To do this, perceptions within a group of participants with autism spectrum disorder were compared with those of a control group reflecting the general population. This new approach was based on an online photographic questionnaire that includes various organisms ranging from plants to humans. Pairs of pictures of the objects were randomly drawn and presented to the participants, who then had to choose the picture with which they thought they best understood feelings.
Through these numerous “matches” between pairs of images, it was possible for us to assign a degree of empathy attributed to each species. The results obtained showed that if the perceptions within the group of participants with autism spectrum disorder are globally similar to those of the general population, then the degree of empathic understanding that they attribute to the human being is surprisingly low.
Thus these participants believed, on average, that it was as difficult to understand the mental states of other humans as those of reptiles or amphibians.
These findings suggest that the empathic difficulties of people with autism will be specific to interpersonal relationships. Thus this may result not so much from impaired perception or reading of basic emotional expressions, as from difficulties in understanding them in a global context. Being aware of an emotional expression (recognizing or being affected by laughter, crying, frowning…) does not necessarily imply a correct understanding of the mental state that causes it: out of context, these signals can be confusing or misleading (for example, tears of joy or nervous laughter).
The empathic characteristics of people with autism can be explained by the fact that while other types may appear to be less expressive and difficult to interpret intuitively, their emotional expression is on the other hand more deterministic, spontaneous and stereotypical. So people with autism can view an animal’s mental state as relatively transparent, provided they are attentive to their behavioral cues and have learned to interpret them. On the contrary, in many cases, humans have become accustomed to pretending, perverting, or containing their emotional expression, whether to preserve their privacy, or to conform to social norms, as a strategy of deception or comedy. So it can, in a way, be considered more complex to understand than other animals.
These findings may contribute to improving current screening techniques, or opening new avenues for supporting people with autism. Moreover, if this work only gives us a vague overview of the communication difficulties that autistic people regularly encounter, it can also, by reversing the situation, cause us to question our own abilities to understand and interact with them.
Finally, for more than two centuries, evolutionary biology has taught us that all living species are related to each other and that man is but one animal species among others. This study contributes to taking a further step in deconstructing the category of “animals” (in its common usage, that is, it is used indiscriminately between species and in opposition to humans) by demonstrating that this concept has not turned out to be more relevant from an epistemological point of view than from biology.