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Autism and Empathy: Can ASD Affect Children’s Ability to Empathize?

February 22, 2021


Read on as we bust the common misconception that individuals on the autism spectrum lack empathy. 

Autism and Empathy: Can ASD Affect Children’s Ability to Empathize?

Empathy, humanity’s oldest trait, is the magical, yet natural, human ability to deeply understand those around us; to walk in their shoes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this always came naturally to us and to our children? There are days where it’s easy to see a vibrant world of wonder through the eyes of our children, but sometimes not even our imagination can help us see the world through their young eyes.

Do children with autism lack empathy? 

As parents of children with autism, we commit to supporting our children in every way we can by empathizing with them, as well as teaching them to empathize with others as they grow up. There is a common misconception that people with autism lack empathy and cannot understand emotion. While it’s true some people with autism don’t show emotion in the same way that neurotypical people do (or have a hard time recognizing social cues), the notion that people with autism lack empathy and cannot recognize feelings is incorrect. Perhaps neurotypical individuals actually find it difficult to emphasize with people on the autism spectrum?

On the channel ChoosingMorality, an autistic vlogger talks about this exact misunderstanding as she experiences it: “I truly care. I care more than most people. I think that is one of the … symptoms of, of an autistic person, or at least some … I don’t know, but I know that I care so much.”

Children with autism are  often seen responding to the emotions of others with empathy. They may react to seeing their mother cry, hearing another child scream in pain as they fall from a swing, or respond to sadness in a family movie. Their response may not always be one we expect, but their empathy for others is recognizably active and authentic.

Relationship between autism and alexithymia

There is a fine but clear line between autism and alexithymia (a condition where people cannot recognise or identify their emotions) and it is generally understood that while approximately 10% of the population at large struggles with alexithymia, up to 50% of people with autism may struggle with it. This data suggests that many children with autism are likely to be able to empathize and that they can learn to practice this from us and our role modeling as parents and caregivers. 


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How do autistic children show empathy?

Children with autism express empathy in a variety of ways, but it can be more difficult to spot this as they do not always express themselves in a “conventional” manner. However, the way they physically react to situations or become distressed can be a good indicator of how they are feeling about what’s going on.

Avoiding eye contact can be a common reality for autistic people, particularly for children with autism; this makes it harder to observe the emotions of others. Fortunately there are other ways we can bring empathy into our relationships with our autism spectrum disorder (ASD) children. For example: 

Identify unique displays of empathy

Identify unique and personal displays of empathy—it may not be consistent with a common understanding of empathy but that doesn’t make it any less powerful.

Limited eye contact? Communicate differently

Recognize that a lack of eye contact doesn’t mean a lack of caring or understanding. Look for less conventional methods of communication, displaying deep understanding.

Research and build empathy together

Gain insider knowledge to help you on your journey to build empathy. Sarai Pahla’s TED Talk, Women & Autism, is deeply inspiring and eye-opening.

Summing-up

To close, I’d like to share some inspiring words from scholar Dawn Prince-Hughes who once wrote of her autism: “My world is a place where people are too beautiful and too terrible to look at, where their mouths speak words that sometimes fall silent on my ears, while their hearts break audibly.” No greater words of empathy may ever have been written.

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