Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Empathy and Autism

It is often said that people with autism lack empathy, but I think that is not necessarily always the case. I think it's not always recognized becomes sometimes the way they express it may be a little out of the ordinary. And yes, sometimes I think a lack of understanding of nonverbal cues can lead a person with autism to not always recognize when someone is upset (therefore they may not respond with empathy, not because they aren't capable of feeling empathy but because they don't recognize a situation where it might be warranted).

When my twins were younger, they didn't understand what facial expressions or things like crying meant. Obviously they cried, but they didn't recognize crying as a sign of sadness or distress in others, so they wouldn't respond "appropriately" to someone crying. We had to teach them to recognize and interpret facial expressions that meant happy, sad, scared, angry, etc. Once they learned to recognize those cues, they began to respond accordingly, which leads me to believe that it is more of a communication issue than truly lacking empathy.

So, I thought I'd share just a few examples of times when my sons have shown empathy. I recently posted about BH singing to LB to try to calm him down, and about both CB and BH being there for Little Bitty when he needed some help. Here are a couple of other examples -- these are just a few out of many:

Last year when BH's teacher missed a few days of school to care for her mother, who was ill, she told me that he was the only one in the class who asked her how her mom was when she returned. He didn't ask because he thought she expected him to (he just doesn't think like that), he asked because he was genuinely worried about his teacher and her mom.

When BH and CB were 4 yrs old, BH was having a rough morning one day because he wanted to stay home and play with his trains instead of going to school. So he threw a fit about everything from having to come downstairs to getting his shoes on to walking out the door to getting in the car… then he went ballistic when I didn’t turn at the “shortcut” he wanted to take (it goes by another school so there was too much traffic that way). So after he’d been crying for a few minutes, CB turned to him and said happily “It’s October, [BH]!” he got no response so then he said “Peekaboo!” BH got mad at him and I told him CB was just trying to be nice. Then CB said “I have a great idea to cheer him up!” and started saying random things like “what about hearts? Does that make you happy?” He was so sweet. And it worked, BH calmed down and then wanted to play peekaboo with him. By the time we got to school, he was in a good mood.

Even Little Bitty, whose communication skills are significantly delayed, has demonstrated his ability to empathize with others by offering his sippy to me or dh when he seemed to think we were tired or thirsty. Not that we were really interested in having his slobberful sippy cup shoved into our mouths, but hey, it's the thought that counts, right? LOL

Please leave a comment with your own examples -- I think it is important for people to see that individuals with autism can and do show empathy for others.


Trish on August 14, 2008 at 8:57 PM said...

This is an interesting post. My son does respond to someone crying, but that is about it. He does not get it when I say I don't feel well and need to lie down. And he will easily think someone is mad at him when no typical observer would think that is the case.

I wish I could help prove your point, but I think it depends on the individual and how their brain functions in these areas. I am seeing a bit more social understanding as he plays with his stuffed animals, but it still goes right past him when he is with peers.

danette on August 14, 2008 at 11:15 PM said...

Trish - that is a good point, there are some situations where my guys are oblivious too (especially LB), and it is more of a challenge w/ their peers than with family & adults. But there was a time when CB and BH were pretty much completely unaware of other people's emotions and that has slowly changed over time (although there are situations where it is still the case). I guess I would *like* to think it was/is more related to just not understanding the nonverbal cues and social interaction than to truly lacking the ability to empathize with others.

Anonymous said...

This was interesting! I loved your stories. I think Daniel is just starting to show empathy. Like, little, teeny-tiny step in that direction. He's not always nice to the dog and it doesn't help to him him he'll hurt her (he has issues with "hurt") if he's not careful or doesn't stopping doing __________. But I think he's starting to understand when someone doesn't LIKE something and he certainly knows when HE doesn't like something. When he prompted me to apologize to him last night because he didn't like how I was playing, my heart soared with hope! We'll take each baby step as it comes and feel thrilled and blessed with each one! I think our recent concentration on emotions is helping in this area and he's been able to show me how he feels by pointing to a face and then I talk about it to him. I also show him how I feel by choosing cards and talking about it. Sorry, I'm writing a book here! Have a great weekend!



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I'm a mom of three boys on the autism spectrum, 11-yr-old identical twins and a 7-yr-old. My husband is a SAHD.


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