Putting yourself in another person's shoes is never easy, and for those with autism spectrum disorder ( ASD), the practice is thought to be especially challenging.
But even though this neurological condition is often considered a barrier to understanding complex emotions, recent research suggests this may be nothing more than a simple misunderstanding.
For the first time, researchers have shown in a small study that adults with ASD can recognise regret and relief in others just as easily as those without the condition, and in some cases, they are even better at it.
"We have shown that, contrary to previous research that has highlighted the difficulties adults with autism experience with empathy and perspective-taking, people with autism possess previously overlooked strengths in processing emotions," says senior author Heather Ferguson, an expert in neurolinguistics, semantics and syntax at the University of Kent.
Using state-of-the-art eye-tracking methods, the researchers analysed 48 adult participants - half with ASD and half without - as they read a story about a character who experiences either regret or relief.
In the narrative, the protagonist makes a decision that results in either a good outcome or a bad outcome, and the final sentence sums up the character's mood explicitly, saying whether their choice left them feeling regret or relief (for instance, "… she feels happy/annoyed about her decision… ").
As predicted, when the final emotion did not match up with the rest of the story (for instance, "she bought new shoes that she loved, and she felt annoyed about her decision"), the majority of participants spent longer reading through the text. They also looked back at previous sentences more often.
There was only one plausible explanation: the readers were trying to make sense of a story that didn't make sense.
Because they understood the protagonist's desires and actions, most of the readers were able to predict whether the character would feel regret or relief - a psychological concept called counterfactual thinking.
Previous studies have shown that this sort of thinking can be disrupted in people with ASD, but the new findings suggest something completely different.
Instead, the results were surprisingly similar for both adults with ASD and adults without ASD. Not only were participants with ASD equally adept at recognising regret, they were actually faster at computing relief.
Together, this suggests that adults with ASD are remarkably savvy when it comes to feeling empathy and processing emotions.
"Thus, our findings reveal that adults with ASD can employ sophisticated processes to adopt someone else's perspective, and use this in real-time as the reference for future processing," the authors conclude.
At first, the results appear to fly in the face of previous research - and it's a small study, so we can't get too carried away just yet. But when taking a closer look, there is another explanation.
The authors think that the differing results may simply stem from the method.
By removing the need for participants to describe their own emotions or the emotions of others, the new research takes a more direct route to the truth.
Using eye-tracking, the authors were able to tap into a participant's immediate, neurological response to emotional content. This is a useful technique because it completely cancels out the bias that a participant might exhibit when describing their understanding of another person's emotional state.
The authors are therefore suggesting that adults with ASD can implicitly and correctly read another person's emotions, they just aren't able to accurately describe those emotions to researchers.
In other words, the past studies on counterfactual thinking may have simply been conflating expression with understanding.
"These findings suggest that the previously observed difficulty with complex counterfactual emotions may be tied specifically to difficulties with the explicit expression of emotions rather than any difficulty experiencing them implicitly at a neurocognitive level," the authors conclude.
This study has been published in Autism Research.