What is alexithymia?

Eastside SpeechAutism


Alexithymia is an English word of Greek origin, meaning:

Lack   word   Mood/Emotion

a           lexis      thymos

People with alexithymia have difficulties or an inability to identify or use words to express their own emotional experiences (1). While their heart may race and their breath may quicken, they struggle to understand and label those physical sensations with an emotional word (2). Alexithymia is not a diagnosis; rather, it is a general term used in psychology to describe a personality construct (3).

In the late 1990s, Peter Sifneos (4), the man who first coined the term alexithymia, referred to the trait as a “feeling aphasia” likening it to the language disorder “aphasia” where a person is without language, usually after a stroke or head injury. The word “aphasia” like “alexithymia” is also an English word of Greek origin meaning (a)without (phasia)speech.

However, in contrast to many people with aphasia, people with alexithymia traits do not always have an obvious or sudden physical injury, rather their brain may just work differently than the majority population. Alexithymia traits have been observed in people with psychiatric conditions, like depression, neurodegenerative diseases, eating disorders, and autism spectrum disorder, but are also present in non-clinical populations (3).

People who demonstrate alexithymia may have varying degrees of difficulty with the following:

  • Distinguishing between emotional and bodily feelings
  • Regulating their own feelings
  • Describing feelings to other people
  • Imagining
  • Getting perspective on others’ feelings
  • Showing emotional range with tone of voice or facial expressions
  • Social relationships
  • People with alexithymia also tend to exhibit a concrete, literal way of thinking (5).

If you know someone with autism, the difficulties and differences described above might sound familiar. In fact, it is estimated that about half of people with ASD are alexithymic to varying degrees. Scientists have noticed the overlap between autism and alexithymia since the 1990s but are still working to understand the relationship between the two. Although people with alexithymic and autistic traits may struggle to interpret feelings and the social world, they still care about people (2). Their experiences are simply different from the norm, and like anyone else, they deserve support and understanding. At Eastside Speech we help many children and adults who struggle with difficulties stemming from autism spectrum disorder and alexithymia.


(1) Sifneos P. E. (1973). The prevalence of alexithymic characteristics in psychosomatic patients. Psychother. Psychosom. 22 255–262. 10.1159/000286529

(2) Young, E (2019). For people with alexithymia, emotions are a mystery. Spectrum News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/people-alexithymia-emotions-mystery/

(3) Poquérusse J, Pastore L, Dellantonio S, Esposito G. Alexithymia and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Complex Relationship. Front Psychol. 2018 Jul 17;9:1196. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01196. Erratum in: Front Psychol. 2018 Sep 05;9:1638. PMID: 30065681; PMCID: PMC6056680.

(4) Sifneos P. E. (1996). Alexithymia: past and present. Am. J. Psychiatry 153 137–142. 10.1176/ajp.153.7.137

(5) Timoney R. L., Holder M. D. (2013). Emotional Processing: Deficits and Happiness. Assessing the Measurement, Correlates, and Well-Being of People with Alexithymia. New York, NY: Springer; 10.1007/978-94-007-7177-2