Children with Autism Can ‘Put Themselves Into Other People’s Shoes’
A common myth that exists about children with autism spectrum disorder is that they are unable to show empathy (the ability to feel along with others) or sympathy (the ability to feel for others). While this may be true for some children on the autism spectrum, it does not apply to everyone.
Historically, a ‘lack of empathy’ or ‘sympathy’ was thought to be the primary characteristic of individuals who were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Research has, however, evolved significantly over the years and shown that this varies from person to person.
It isn’t empathy itself that is impaired in children who have autism spectrum disorder. Instead, their social communication and their ability to describe and express their emotions.
There are Different Types of Empathy
Many parents who have children on the autism spectrum report that they do experience strong emotions related to the suffering of others. This suggests that a lack of expressed sympathy or empathy may not be as a result of a lack of emotion or feeling in someone who has autism – but rather due to underdeveloped skills.
There are two types of empathy. The first is termed cognitive or shallow empathy, which involves recognising and understanding another’s mental state. The second type is known as affective or deep empathy, which is explained by feeling the emotions of others. Many children with autism struggle with cognitive empathy because they are unable to recognise and name emotions based on facial expressions. Affective empathy, on the other hand, is based on instincts and involuntary responses to the emotions of others. Feelings here can be strong and overwhelming, and research shows that children who have autism may actually feel other people’s emotions more intensely.
So, What are the Difficulties that Children with Autism Have?
Children with autism may have the following social, emotional, and communication difficulties:
- Ability to label emotions: many children are who are on the autism spectrum are unable to recognise and label the emotions that they feel. This is also known as alexithymia and can also occur in people who are not on the autism spectrum. Note – this does not mean the child cannot feel or experience the emotion.
- Interpretation of non-verbal communication: children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulty interpreting non-verbal communication such as body language and facial expressions.
- Joint attention: children with autism may have challenges with the shared focus of two or more individuals in the same object or event.
- Social reciprocity: this involves the back-and-forth interaction between people, during which the behaviour of each person influences the behaviour of the other person.
- Social cognition: refers to the mental processes involved in perceiving, attending to, remembering, thinking about, and making sense of the people in our social world.