Autism and Empathy  - Hidden Talents ABA

Autism and Empathy 

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May 12, 2021 Autism and Empathy 

Many believe that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) makes those on the spectrum lack empathy. The reality is that many people with ASD have trouble identifying what they are feeling. When unable to express their emotions, it seems like they don't have any.

The purpose of this article is to inform people about the effects that autism has on empathy. By the end, you will have learned:

  • The elements needed to show empathy to others
  • If autism causes a lack of empathy or not
  • How you can explain autism to other children
  • How ABA therapy may help teach empathy to autistic children
Three children of different genders with autism is smiling , Their expressions conveying empathy.

Understanding Empathy and Sympathy 

Empathy means being able to feel the emotions of another person. You experience certain feelings together. 

Sympathy means understanding why that person feels those emotions. Yet, they remain distanced enough not to inherit their feelings. 

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman discovered three forms of empathy. Cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. 

Cognitive Empathy 

Cognitive empathy is awareness of how and why a person might feel a certain way. It is the ability to look at things from all perspectives. Doing so helps you understand their emotions and thought processes. 

Emotional Empathy 

Emotional empathy is when you feel the same emotions as another person. You can achieve it by putting yourself in the same emotional place as someone. You then can feel and understand what they are going through. 

Compassionate Empathy 

Compassionate empathy is a balance between cognitive and emotional empathy. You are aware of the other persons thinking and emotions and can feel them as well. Those two elements put together motivates you to take action to help them.

Does autism cause a lack of empathy?

Someone with autism spectrum disorder may have trouble expressing sympathy and empathy. Or they may fail to express them at all. Being unable to express those emotions makes it appear as if they lack those emotions. 

It's common for someone with autism to fail to express those emotions. It doesn't mean that they don't have them, though. Most of the time, they have underdeveloped skills. Those skills can be in one or more of the many elements needed to show empathy to other people. 

Here are the empathetic elements that you need to connect with someone:

  • Be able to recognize the other person's thoughts and feelings
  • Understand what the other person is hoping for and what their expectations could be
  • The personal relation to the other person's emotions through shared emotional experiences
  • Know how to express feelings of empathy both verbally and physically 
  • Culturally understand that displaying empathy is an expectation or a desire

Empathy is an emotion with two dimensions. It has a cognitive level and an affective/emotional level. 

The cognitive level is where you recognize and understand someone's emotional state. 

The emotional/affective level is where you feel someone's emotions.

Emotions are displayed on the face using the mouth and the eyes. People with ASD tend not to pay attention to those places and look at the sides of a face instead. As a result, they cannot use cognitive empathy. They are unable to recognize emotions by looking at the expressions on people's faces. 

Affective empathy gets felt more powerfully. It even can be overwhelming for some people with ASD. The emotions of other people may even be more intense for some autistic people.

Another factor that makes it seem like autism causes a lack of empathy is the missed social cues. Children with autism tend to have different responses to things than typical children. They end up having different reactions because of those missing cues.  

Here are some reasons why someone with ASD may miss these cues:

  • It's complicated for those with autism to interpret non-verbal forms of communication. They can't pick up visual cues like facial expressions and body language. 
  • Children use repetition and mimicry to learn and develop social skills. Children with autism tend not to imitate others instinctively. Expressing empathy as others do may be more challenging to them because of this. 
Empathetic hand hold

Can empathy be taught to autistic children?

The Journal of Applied Behavioural Analysis published research involving autistic children learning empathy. The study indicated that autistic children could indeed get taught cognitive empathy. 

Many techniques for teaching empathy include reinforcing responses to other people's emotions. Modeling and prompting are two popular ones. They teach how to use the correct facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and phrases. 

However, those techniques only teach behavioral empathy, not empathy at an emotional level. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and other therapies have proved to improve emotional empathy. 

Explaining to children that autistic children may lack empathy

Reports show that 1 in every 54 children in the U.S. gets diagnosed with some form of ASD. Over half of autistic students ages, 6 to 21 are in a regular classroom for 80 percent or more of their day at school. 

Proper and clear explanations of autism to other children are essential. Doing so helps make classrooms more comfortable for autistic students. It creates a safer environment for them when the people around them are aware of their needs.

When explaining autism to another child, keep these tips and ideas in mind:

There are no wrong questions

Honesty should never be considered rude, especially when it comes to the curiosity of a child. You can take it as an opportunity to explain to them that everyone's different and that that's okay. 

Different ways to communicate

Show them the different ways that they can communicate with non-verbal autistic children. Let them know that even though they can't talk, it doesn't mean they don't understand anything. 

Be open and honest

If you hold back on not talking about certain things, it shows them that it's too bad to talk about it. A negative mindset can develop if a child feels like they shouldn't discuss a specific topic. 

Use storybooks

Books and stories can have a powerful impact on the way a child views things. Try reading them books about autism spectrum disorder with autistic characters in them. Those types of books can put certain things into an easier-to-understand perspective. 

Remind them to be polite

You may hear them say, "that kid is weird" or that they "act crazy." Please take this opportunity to correct them. Explain that some people have more significant reactions to things than others do. Also, let them know that it's never okay to call someone weird or crazy because they're different. It can be hurtful to the other person's feelings. 

ABA therapy and teaching empathy

Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy helps children with autism spectrum disorder build social skills. It also teaches them appropriate behaviors. Each therapy plan is different and gets catered to the autistic child's unique needs. 

Here's what a trained therapist may do to teach a child with ASD empathy:

  1. First, they will begin to teach the child what emotions need an empathetic response. They then get taught how to recognize them. The therapist may do this with pictures or silent videos of facial expressions.
  2. Next, they teach the child how to identify those emotions during everyday interactions. 
  3. Learning how to understand what the other person is feeling is the lesson that follows. The therapist, by then, will have shown them when a particular situation needs empathy. 
  4. Finally, the autistic child will get taught appropriate responses. They will learn what response they need for different emotions. Teaching proper responses usually gets done through role-playing. 

The main goal of ABA therapy is to teach a child with ASD how to understand their emotions. They also will develop an emotional understanding of the feelings of others. The therapist will work with the child to improve the child's behaviors and responses.