Even after years of proven cognitive and behavioral research, there still exists a persistent stigma against individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. Learning centers dedicated to special needs children agree that a lot of the general public still believe that people with ASD lack empathy and cannot comprehend emotions. However, this is just a stereotype and couldn’t be any further away from the truth.
While it is true that children with autism struggle in dealing with some aspects of empathy and do not fairly show outward emotions, it does not mean that they do not have the ability to read emotions and empathize.
Often looking impassive and indifferent, these special needs children are usually the kindest, most compassionate people you’ll come across. Profoundly dedicated to their family and friends, they are attuned with their environment and the feelings of those closest to them- unlike the stereotypical, insensitive individuals often depicted in the mainstream media.
In this blog, we will be discovering what empathy is, and shed light and provide awareness on the issue between children with ASD and empathy.
What is Empathy?
By definition, empathy is the “act of understanding” or being aware or being sensitive to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others without sharing or having them explicitly communicated. In other words, it is the capacity of an individual to understand what another person is feeling. The truth is, there’s more to empathy than just feeling. As autism is complex, empathy is a broad construct. Let us examine its three dimensions.
To simply put it, cognitive empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and see their perspective, without necessarily getting emotionally involved. Rather than feeling, it is empathy by thought. This dimension to empathy involves an intricate thought process that involves figuring out what other people are feeling or thinking based on the context they come from. This allows people to understand why others act in a certain way.
For neurotypical individuals, this is something that can come naturally and can be picked up easily. But like most non-neurotypical people, such as children with ASD, it is something that most of them really have to work hard at.
For most children with autism, the concept of “implied” may be difficult to grasp- this means, you really have to mean what you say when you communicate with them. Without precise and clear instructions, ASD children will have difficulty in recognizing other people’s behaviors.
Rather than being implicit about something, you have to be explicit when communicating with ASD children.
Clinical psychologists point out that children with autism have the tendency to unconsciously assume that the people around them have the same perspective and understanding as they do. As a result, when they have difficulties in perceiving views different from theirs. This also makes them brutally honest and struggle with social cues.
Affective ( Emotional ) Empathy
This is the type of empathy most people recognize and feel. It is often referred to as personal distress. Child therapists say, affective or emotional empathy is the first thing that infants feel. For instance, babies respond to a smile or giggle when seeing someone smile as well. Similarly, babies cry upon hearing other infants cry as well.
This kind of empathy is often the building block of forming relationships. As it is natural for us human beings to connect with each other ( and other living things) through shared emotions. People need to understand that this is something that autistic children do not lack.
There are several children on the spectrum who feel immensely for animals- for instance, the bond they form with their pets. It is not uncommon for autistic children to catch on with the people closest to them is feeling.
Strangely enough, ASD children can have hyper-empathy- they can be overly sensitive to the emotions of the people around them, that it manifests into physical pain. For example tensions in their environment can be overwhelming. Processing these feelings are difficult for them so they tend to withdraw or even breakdown.
One illustration for hyper-empathy is when a child with ASD feels emotionally attached to a specific object or even everyday items such as a comb or a toothbrush. For instance, an autistic child may feel sad if a specific comb isn’t used as they assume it may feel left out. For someone who does not have knowledge of ASD, it may not make sense.
Finally, there is compassionate empathy. This is probably what other people think of when they hear the word empathy. It is feeling someone’s pain and taking action in alleviating it- in other words, we extend help because we care, because there is compassion.
Children in the spectrum often grow up to become passionate advocates. They feel highly motivated when they stand up against what they perceive as wrong or injustice.
ASD children do not see boundaries when formulating solutions, unlike neurotypical people. However, their difficulty in cognitive empathy can get in the way of them interacting socially. Which makes way for social barriers to come up.
Autistic children need to work on their ability to receive and give love, but is absolutely not a thing they are not capable of. They may not understand it when you hug them or put your arm around their shoulders unless you explain why you do so.
Beyond all these, children with ASD really do care, more than what we think of. Learning centers all over the world offer several therapies like occupational therapy, that helps these children perform better as they grow up and help them in their challenges when it comes to empathy. In the end, like any other human being that thinks, children with autism also feel- empathetic, emotional, and compassionate.
If you have a child who has ASD, centers for children with special needs such as Pulse Therapy and Learning center can help you understand them better.