Do Children with Autism Experience Empathy?
One of the many questions asked when discussing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is whether or not those on the spectrum are capable of feeling empathy. It’s a stereotype that has persisted, mainly due to a study by a British psychology professor, Simon Baron-Cohen, who saw autism as an “empathy disorder.” But what is empathy? Put simply, it’s the ability to understand what a person is feeling or thinking. And, this stereotype is rooted in the fact that some people with ASD may find difficulty in responding to social situations — they may appear to be apathetic, thus impolite.
While it’s true that those with ASD may struggle with certain aspects of empathy, this doesn’t mean they’re incapable of experiencing or witnessing empathy. Many researchers have begun to suggest that it isn’t empathy that is impaired, but rather social communication skills (the ability to understand, describe, or express one’s emotions). To better understand the separate types of empathy, and how a child with ASD may struggle with them, there is the following:
- Effective or Emotional Empathy. This is when one can feel others’ emotions, as if one had ‘caught’ the emotions themselves. An example of this could be the bond shared between a child with ASD and animals, as the social restrictions of understanding human behavior are absent, it can be easier to understand for them. Those with ASD certainly do not lack this kind of empathy, and can sometimes have too much – a condition known as ‘hyper-empathy.’ In this, they may have difficulty processing emotion, and therefore even the thought of suffering can cause intense emotional, psychological and even physical pain.
- Cognitive Empathy. This is being able to put oneself into someone else’s place, and see their perspective. Anyone with autism may find it very difficult to understand the complexities of what other people are thinking or feeling, or to pick up on implications or context cues. In this, it is helpful to say exactly what you mean when talking to a child with ASD, because they will often assume that everyone else has the same views and understanding of the world as them.
- Compassionate Empathy. This is the most widely understood subset of empathy – feeling someone’s pain, and taking action to help. While those with ASD aren’t lacking in this ability, they often can struggle in offering a socially acceptable kind of help. For example, a child with autism may not like hugging or other forms of physical contact, so in social situations where one may be receptive to this type of comfort, the child may not understand and be seen as impolite or uncaring. The truth is they often do care and are aiming to be supportive, even when they get things wrong.
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