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Mixed emotions: The contribution of alexithymia to the emotional symptoms of autism

Bird, G. and Cook, R. (2013). Mixed emotions: The contribution of alexithymia to the emotional symptoms of autism. Translational Psychiatry, 3, doi: 10.1038/tp.2013.61

Abstract

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 sub-groups 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.

Publication Type: Article
Publisher Keywords: Autism, Alexithymia, Heterogeneity, Emotions, Expressions, Empathy
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Departments: School of Arts & Social Sciences > Psychology
URI: http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/4531
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