People with Autism Use Empathy in Moral Judgments

Father and son sitting on rock in canyonDespite what the stigma surrounding autism implies, a study published in Scientific Reports suggests people with and without autism make similar moral judgments, often relying on empathy.

People with autism are generally thought to lack empathy. This supposed absence of empathy often serves as a plot device in television and movies featuring characters with autism. It may also be used to discriminate against and cultivate fear of people with autism. The new study undermines these claims, instead suggesting people with autism are just as likely to avoid harming others as people without autism.

How People with and without Autism Make Moral Judgments

For the study, researchers compared 17 people with autism—six women and 11 men—to 17 participants without an autism diagnosis. All participants were matched by age, education level, and gender. Seven participants with autism were taking psychoactive drugs, primarily for depression, but those drugs did not change any variables relevant to the study.

Participants completed surveys to assess their symptoms of autism. The researchers then asked participants for moral judgments in three different text scenarios. The first was a practical scenario with no moral content. The second two scenarios included moral dilemmas—one with a personal component that might require harming someone for the greater good.

Both groups were resistant to harming another person, even if it meant saving several others. This challenges the notion that people with autism only make utilitarian judgments that weigh costs and benefits. Instead, empathy and the desire not to hurt another person are major factors in the decision.

Further analysis suggested people with autism face two conflicting biases. The stress of social situations caused people with autism to rely less on a utilitarian framework, but other personality traits associated with autism produced less focus on the emotions of others. The conflict between these two biases might explain why people with autism judge moral situations similarly to people without autism. These two facets of personality have opposite tendencies that cancel each other out.


  1. Autistic and non-autistic people make similar moral judgments. (2016, March 29). Retrieved from
  2. Patil, I., Melsbach, J., Hennig-Fast, K., & Silani, G. (2016). Divergent roles of autistic and alexithymic traits in utilitarian moral judgments in adults with autism. Scientific Reports, 6. doi:10.1038/srep23637

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Thom


    March 30th, 2016 at 4:19 PM

    It is so nice when we can see that somehow, some way, we all share this common ground

  • Brett Y

    Brett Y

    March 31st, 2016 at 8:49 AM

    I agree with Thom
    it seems as if we spend so much time looking for the things that make us different from one another that we can rarely see the things that actually make us more alike than we would think.

  • Candi c

    Candi c

    March 31st, 2016 at 12:05 PM

    Autistic children and adults can be some of the sweetest and most empathetic people that you will ever meet and you want to know why? Because what they rely on for judgement is something so simple and pure, something that for many of us has been tainted by life but they are still just looking at things in a simple way, a way that helps them see more clearly than the rest of us could hope for.

  • clayton


    April 2nd, 2016 at 12:01 PM

    This sort of upends in many ways the things that we have always thought about people with autism doesn’t it?

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