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It is widely accepted that autism is associated with disordered emotion processing and, in particular, with deficits of emotional reciprocity such as impaired emotion recognition and reduced empathy. However, a close examination of the literature reveals wide heterogeneity within the autistic population with respect to emotional competence. Here we argue that, where observed, emotional impairments are due to alexithymia-a condition that frequently co-occurs with autism-rather than a feature of autism per se. Alexithymia is a condition characterized by a reduced ability to identify and describe one's own emotion, but which results in reduced empathy and an impaired ability to recognize the emotions of others. We briefly review studies of emotion processing in alexithymia, and in autism, before describing a recent series of studies directly testing this 'alexithymia hypothesis'. If found to be correct, the alexithymia hypothesis has wide-reaching implications for the study of autism, and how we might best support subgroups of autistic individuals with, and without, accompanying alexithymia. Finally, we note the presence of elevated rates of alexithymia, and inconsistent reports of emotional impairments, in eating disorders, schizophrenia, substance abuse, Parkinson's Disease, multiple sclerosis and anxiety disorders. We speculate that examining the contribution of alexithymia to the emotional symptoms of these disorders may bear fruit in the same way that it is starting to do in autism.

Original publication

DOI

10.1038/tp.2013.61

Type

Journal article

Journal

Transl Psychiatry

Publication Date

23/07/2013

Volume

3

Keywords

Affective Symptoms, Autistic Disorder, Emotional Intelligence, Emotions, Empathy, Humans, Models, Psychological