Empathy and Autism Part 1: What Is Empathy?

If you surveyed the general public on what they know about the features of autism, I suspect that one of the most common words that would come up would be ’empathy’. Many people’s understanding is that autistic people lack empathy, which makes it difficult for them to connect with others, leading to the many social difficulties they experience. I think this is one of the main reasons why a lot of people find it hard to believe that I am autistic when I first tell them. Most people who meet me seem to get the impression that I am reasonably empathetic (or at least that’s what they tell me), and since it is widely believed that empathy and autism can’t co-exist in the same person, it just doesn’t make sense to them that I could be autistic.

The reality is that it is possible for autistic people to be empathetic – and there are many autistic people who are highly empathetic. However, the story is complicated by the fact that there are actually two different types of empathy. Both of them are affected by autism, but in very different ways. I have therefore decided to split this discussion of autism and empathy into two blog posts. This first blog post will be about the two different types of empathy and then the next one (coming soon) will look at how each of them is affected by autism.

There are two types of empathy: cognitive and emotional

Psychologists use the word empathy to refer to two different things. One is called cognitive empathy and the other is called emotional empathy (also known as affective empathy).

‘Cognitive’ is a word psychologists use for anything to do with thoughts, while ‘affective’ is a word psychologists use for anything to do with feelings. That’s probably all I need to say to explain it, but I like examples, so here are some examples of cognitive and affective processes. Cognitive: thinking about what to have for lunch. Affective: the feeling of satisfaction as you take the first delicious bite. Cognitive: working out what 251 times 7 equals. Affective: the feeling of boredom as you enter your second hour of doing maths homework. Cognitive: wondering how many more examples I’m going to give. Affective: the feeling of relief as you realise this is the last one.

So cognitive empathy is a type of empathy that involves thinking, and emotional empathy (or affective empathy) is a type of empathy that involves feeling.

There are two types of emotional empathy

I’ve just told you that there are two types of empathy, called cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. However, emotional empathy itself actually comes in two different types.

The first type of emotional empathy is when we take on other people’s emotions. For example, if you show someone a photograph of a person’s face displaying a particular emotion (happiness, sadness, fear etc.), looking at the picture will often cause the viewer to experience the same emotion. In other words, we feel other people’s feelings. This type of emotional empathy has a couple of different names. Sometimes it is known as ‘affect matching’, because you match someone else’s affect (feelings), and sometimes it is referred to as ’emotional contagion’, because the emotion passes from one person to another like a contagious disease.

A slightly more accurate description than the one I gave above would be to say that affect matching/emotional contagion is when we experience the emotion that we perceive someone else to be experiencing. For example, if we mistakenly believe that someone else is sad and it makes us feel sad, then that is still affect matching, even though the emotion never actually existed in the other person. Also, if someone else is sad but we aren’t aware of it and therefore we don’t feel sad, then that does not indicate that we lack emotional empathy – we can’t match an emotion that we aren’t aware of.

The second type of emotional empathy is when we feel an emotional response to things that happen to other people. For example, if you see a story on the news about people fleeing war and it makes you feel sad, or angry, then that is emotional empathy. This is different to affect matching because you are responding to the people’s situation rather than their emotions. You may not even be aware of what emotions they are feeling (and their emotions might not be the same as the ones you are experiencing – in this example they might be feeling fear).

In fact, this second kind of emotional empathy does not even require the other person to be aware of the situation that you are emotionally responding to. For example, imagine you are a teacher and there is a student in your class who was struggling earlier in the year but has worked hard to improve their grades and has recently been told that they will get to go on a school trip as a reward. One day, one of your colleagues tells you that they have just finished marking that student’s most recent biology test and they have done terribly. Your colleague explains that there is no way the student will be able to go on the trip now. You feel sad because you know the student was really looking forward to it.

Later that day, you see your colleague again and they tell you that when they got back to their classroom they realised they had accidentally missed out two pages when they were marking the test. The student actually aced it! You feel a rush of relief and excitement. So you have now been on a whole emotional roller-coaster about a situation which the student was completely unaware of – as far as they are aware their place on the trip was never under threat.

This kind of emotional empathy is what we are experiencing when we say that we feel a certain way ‘for’ someone – e.g. “I feel really happy for them”, “I feel bad for her”, “I’m so pleased for you”, and so on.

Although there are similarities between the two kinds of emotional empathy, they are distinct things. Affect matching is perceiving an emotion in someone and then feeling that emotion yourself. The other kind of emotional empathy is when you feel an emotional reaction to someone else’s situation (as far as I’m aware there’s no specific name for this second type of emotional empathy).

Note that it doesn’t count as emotional empathy if your emotional reaction to the situation is motivated by the way the situation might affect you. For example, if you find out that your friend has lost her job and you feel sad because you know she won’t take you out to expensive restaurants any more, that’s not empathy (of any kind).

Emotional empathy can lead to kindness (but it doesn’t guarantee it)

If we are told that someone is ‘very empathetic’ it usually brings to mind lots of positive qualities. We would probably imagine that they are a very kind person who goes out of their way to help others. The sort of person who is always there for their friends, helps elderly people across the street and is generally an all-round good egg.

When it comes to emotional empathy, this association is reasonably accurate. If you have strong emotional reactions to the emotions and situations of others then you will probably be strongly motivated to help them. If you feel other people’s happiness and sadness, and their successes and failures feel like they are your own successes and failures, then you will be more likely to want to help them than someone who is more emotionally detached from the people around them.

However, it is not true that high levels of emotional empathy guarantee kind behaviour. If you have a lot of emotional empathy and you are surrounded by unhappy people (which makes you unhappy), there are actually two ways to resolve the situation. The first is to try to cheer up the people around you, so that they become happy, which then makes you happy. The second is to leave and find some happier people to be around. In other words, having high levels of emotional empathy may lead some people to avoid those who are in distress rather than help them.

Nonetheless, even if high levels of emotional empathy don’t always guarantee kind behaviour, they do probably provide a good barrier against actively unkind behaviour. If you strongly feel the pain of people around you, then you will probably avoid doing things which you know will cause them pain.

People with high levels of emotional empathy won’t always behave kindly towards others, and some of them might even be more likely to avoid people who are in distress, but it is probably reasonable to say that there is a link between emotional empathy and kindness.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to read minds

The world is full of minds. There are currently about seven billion human minds and an even larger number of animal minds. Despite this abundance of minds, each of us has only ever directly experienced one of them – our own. You can see evidence that other people have minds (by observing their actions), but you can never actually experience another person’s mind for yourself.

Given that we can’t experience other minds, we are very good at noticing that they exist. When we see a person crossing the road we automatically assume that there is a mind directing that person – it takes no conscious effort for us to appreciate that there is a mind present in that person and that they are not just being blown by the wind like the crisp packet that is crossing the road next to them. Similarly, when someone speaks to us, we automatically know that there is a mind generating the words we are hearing. The only thing we actually experience is the sound of the words, but we are instantly aware of the mind behind them.

This ability to spot minds may not seem very impressive to you. You’ve probably never felt like you deserve congratulations for being able to tell that your dentist has a mind and your toaster doesn’t. That’s probably because, like all humans, you’ve grown up with this ability to notice the existence of minds, so it’s difficult to imagine not being able to do it. But imagine trying to program a computer to identify when there is a mind in its surroundings. It would actually be extremely difficult, maybe impossible.

But our impressiveness does not end there. Not only are we able to understand that other people have minds, but we can also figure out what is going on in those minds. By observing other people and by thinking about the situations they are in, we can make educated guesses about their thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, intentions and so on.

When we see someone crossing the road we don’t just realise that they have a mind, but we start thinking about what is happening in that mind. For example, we can say with confidence that they have an intention to get to the other side. Based on the way they are walking and their facial expressions we can make other inferences. Perhaps they are moving quickly and have a frantic expression on their face and therefore we work out that they are probably stressed because they are running late for something.

When our friend tells us about their weekend away with their partner’s family, we are not just listening to the information they are telling us, but we are also constantly reading the clues they give us that allow us to work out what is happening in their mind. For example, they might not mention how they feel about their brother-in-law, but from the way their tone of voice and facial expression changes when they mention him, we can guess that they find him irritating.

This ability to understand that others have minds and to figure out what is going on in those minds is cognitive empathy. It is called ‘cognitive’ empathy because it involves thinking. When we are using our cognitive empathy skills we are thinking about, and forming beliefs about, other people’s minds.

Psychologists have a lot of different names for cognitive empathy

Unfortunately, there is a bit more terminology to introduce. It would be great if all the psychologists could get together and decide on one name for each concept, but apparently they can’t, so we need to talk about ‘mentalising‘, ‘mind-reading‘ and ‘theory of mind‘. But the good news is there aren’t really any new concepts here, just new words.

‘Mentalising’ and ‘mind-reading’ are pretty straightforward because they are really just synonyms for cognitive empathy. Both terms just mean ‘thinking about other people’s minds’. For example, if you see a person crying and figure out that they are upset then we could say that you are using cognitive empathy, or we could say that you are mentalising, or we could say that you are mind-reading.

‘Theory of mind’ is also just a synonym for cognitive empathy, but I found the term a bit confusing when I first came across it so I’m going to give a bit of background. The important thing to understand is that theory of mind is something that each of us has, it is not the name of a theory in psychology. So when you are working out that the crying person is sad you are using your theory of mind.

Psychologists like to refer to the beliefs people have as ‘theories’. For example, if you believe that you are the funniest member of your family then we could say that that is a ‘theory’ that you have (and other members of your family might have their own theories about who is the funniest).

A person’s ‘theory of mind’ is the set of beliefs (theories) that they have about other people’s minds – both the belief that those minds exist and the beliefs they have about what is happening in those minds. When you open the door to the delivery person dropping off your shopping, you instantly form a belief that they have a mind and you start to form beliefs about their thoughts, feelings, goals, personality and so on. These beliefs make up your theory of mind.

Cognitive empathy definitely doesn’t guarantee kindness

We saw above that when it comes to emotional empathy, the common association that is made between empathy and kindness is reasonably accurate. Although emotional empathy won’t always lead to behaviour that helps others, there is good reason to expect a person with a high level of emotional empathy to engage in more of this behaviour than someone with a low level of emotional empathy.

With cognitive empathy, things are very different. Cognitive empathy is a completely different type of thing to emotional empathy. Emotional empathy is something that you experience, something that happens to you rather than something you do. When your best friend bursts into tears, you feel a wave a distress rush over your body. When you find out that your neighbour’s son has made a full recovery from his life-threatening illness, you experience happiness, excitement, relief. These emotional reactions happen automatically and they guide our behaviour. Cognitive empathy, in contrast, is something you do, it is a set of skills that you use. And you can use them however you want.

Cognitive empathy skills give a person the ability to work out what other people are thinking and feeling, what they want, what they believe, what they value. Like any set of skills, they can be used for all sorts of different purposes – not just kind ones.

If you are a computer programmer with advanced coding skills, you could use those skills in lots of different ways. You could build a website that helps people donate unwanted food to those who don’t have any (which would be a kind thing to do). Or you could create a new computer virus that locks people’s computers and demands they send you money or you will delete all of their data (which would not be very nice of you). Or you could develop an app that lets you turns your lights on and off without getting up (which wouldn’t really affect other people at all).

Cognitive empathy is the same: it can be used for kind purposes, for unkind ones, or for ones that are not particularly kind or unkind.

For example, you could use cognitive empathy to understand how other people feel and what their needs are and then use this information to provide for their needs and make them feel better. If someone is feeling down, you can talk to them and try to cheer them up. Cognitive empathy helps you to know which questions to ask and how to ask them. When the person responds to those questions, cognitive empathy helps you to read between the lines and get a better idea of what the issues are. It also helps you to predict what the effect would be of different things you could do or say, so that you can say and do the most helpful, supportive things.

Alternatively, you could use your cognitive empathy skills to work out what other people’s thoughts, feelings, desires and fears are and then use this information to manipulate them for your own gain. Car salespeople and estate agents who make a lot of sales know how to read someone and work out exactly what to say in order to make parting with their money feel like the right thing to do. The aim is not to help the customer make the right decision for them, but to get them to agree to the sale, for the highest price possible, as soon as possible. These same cognitive empathy skills are used by all sorts of manipulators, abusers, con-artists and bullies to get what they want at the expense of others.

And finally, there are morally neutral ways of using cognitive empathy. Let’s say you are on a bus and you overhear two people having a conversation. By paying attention to tone of voice, body language and choice of words you are able to get some insights into what is going on in their minds. Maybe you work out that the person on the left has a crush on the person on the right, and maybe you realise that the person on the right isn’t really concentrating because they are worrying about an upcoming work deadline. Aside from being mildly entertaining for you, this use of your cognitive empathy skills never has any effect on anyone.

When it comes to cognitive empathy, the common idea that being empathetic means being kind is very misleading. It is true that if you are already motivated to help others then having strong cognitive empathy skills will often enable you to help more effectively, but if your intentions are to manipulate and take advantage of others then cognitive empathy skills will help you do that just as well.


Here are all the key points about the two types of empathy in handy bullet-point form:

Emotional empathy (affective empathy)

  • Emotional empathy has two components:
    • Feeling the emotions that you perceive other people to be feeling. This is called affect matching or emotional contagion.
    • Feeling emotional responses to things that happen to other people.
  • Emotional empathy is an automatic reaction that we experience – not something that we decide to do.
  • In many cases, emotional empathy motivates people to help others.
  • In some cases it may motivate people to avoid those who are in distress.

Cognitive empathy

  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to work out what is happening in other people’s minds (i.e. their thoughts, feelings, goals, desires, fears, intentions and so on).
  • Cognitive empathy is a set of skills that we use.
  • Cognitive empathy can be used for all kinds of different purposes, including ones that help others and ones that harm others.

In the next blog post, I will look at how emotional and cognitive empathy are each affected by autism. If you want to be notified when the next post comes out, you can follow the blog.

4 responses to “Empathy and Autism Part 1: What Is Empathy?”

  1. Catherine says:

    I learnt so much here! Looking forward to part 2!

  2. […] still working on the next post in my Autism and Empathy series, so in the meantime, here’s a discussion of some of the words used to talk about […]

  3. James says:

    Re read this.

    I get the distinctions and find them helpful.

    Looking forward to finding out about the links with autism, if and when that’s ready.

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