Donders Wonders

Autism ?Alexithymia

This post is also available in Dutch.

People with autism can recognize emotions, but people with alexithymia cannot

People with alexithymia have problems with their recognizing their own emotions.

( Image taken from Pixabay, modified with Picasa )

It has been a common belief for quite some time that people with autism have trouble recognizing emotions from peoples’ facial expressions. However, recent research shows that people with autism can read and show facial emotions. Interestingly, this is not the case for people with alexithymia.

Alexithymia and Autism and go hand in hand but are different

Alexithymia is a personality trait in which people have problems identifying and-describing their own emotions. How often do alexithymia and autism overlap? According to a study carried out by Dr. Sylvie Berthoz , about half of people with autism have alexithymia, and only 10% of non-autistic people have alexithymia. However, despite the higher chance of encountering an autistic person with alexithymia, it does not only occur with autism. Alexithymia can occur equally frequently amongst persons with depression or schizophrenia.

It is important to understand that autism does not cause autism alexithymia or the reverse. Autism and alexithymia are two separate conditions, however someone can have a combination of both autism and alexithymia. Therefore, it is still an open question as to whether joint autism and alexithymia should be treated as two separate conditions, or whether the combination should be considered as a variation of autism or alexithymia all together.

Faces of autism and alexithymia are perceived differently

To recognize an emotion, it is crucial to look at the face of the speaker. It has been said that people with autism avoid eye contact when talking to others. However, if a person has both autism and alexithymia, which one drives the avoidance towards the face? To answer this question, Dr. Richard Cook and fellow researchers asked people with autism and people with alexithymia (with and without autism) to watch movies. While watching these movies, the researchers recorded how and when participants looked or gazed at faces  with a device called an eye tracker.

It turns out That people with autism generally look less at faces when compared to the others. However, participants with autism would look at the face, i.e. eyes and mouth, in the same way people would who didn’t have these conditions. Interestingly, people with alexithymia had a different pattern of eye-gaze directed to the mouth and eyes. This different pattern potentially might explain differences in emotional face recognition.

It is important to study how autistic people and people with alexithymia process information, not only for better understanding and treating the two conditions, but also to stop falsely labeling people. This study shows that autistic people are capable of exhibiting empathy and recognizing emotions. Further suggesting that people with autism may be able to process emotions in more general ways than we first may have thought.   


Written by Lara. Edited by Marisha.


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