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Autistic People Do Not Lack Empathy

One of the most harmful misconceptions about autism is that we lack empathy. In reality, the vast majority of us feel things very deeply. We have emotional empathy by the bucketful. Now, knowing what to do when someone else is overwhelmed with emotion? How to comfort a distressed co-worker or classmate? That would require cognitive empathy, and that can be another story entirely.

That’s because the features that landed us on an autism diagnosis in the first place mean we need to be taught what to do in response to the emotions of others.

Let’s dig deeper into this.

Autism is a social communication condition. This means individuals with this identification will have substantial deficits in nonverbal communication. Translation? They may not understand how to interpret facial expressions, body language and tone of voice in others — and may not be aware of what they are communicating with theirs. A flat tone of voice and flat facial expression — resting b**** face, in other words — can be interpreted as icy cold or uncaring, when in fact, the outward appearance in no way reflects what is felt inside. The autistic person may need to be taught how to respond in each situation.

For example, cognitive empathy is called for when your child’s friend has a grandparent pass away.

This would be the time to teach him how to respond to and support his friend — and how to act and interact with his friend’s parents. Teach him what to say when he sees his friend, and what to say to the parents. Model for him how to write a sympathy card, and show him what to write inside. Is he old enough to attend the funeral? If so, teach the expectations for behavior in the funeral home, at the gravesite and at the wake. Teach by role modelling, using social scripts, and by viewing video clips.

If a classmate’s pet is lost, use it as an opportunity to teach your daughter what to say to the child whose pet is missing, and to practice the tone of voice that should accompany the sentiment. As much as possible, we want to teach our children the Hidden Curriculum of these situations before they embarrass themselves or are labelled heartless, unkind or lacking empathy. We don’t want to shame children for being autistic — for not knowing what others might understand naturally. We do want to teach them what they need to know to stay ahead of social demands such as these.

Difficulties with interpreting facial expressions and tone of voice are part of the diagnosis criteria, and everyone who gets an ASD diagnosis these days must display challenges in this area. This means that to enhance someone’s ability to respond appropriately when another person is upset, grieving, angry or frustrated, it is important we teach our children to recognize what these emotions look like. You could ask their school to include a Program Page in the IEP to address nonverbal communication, with a specific goal around teaching facial expressions and body language.

There are a number of good books available that could help you help your child, including Making Faces: A First Book of Emotions, or Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions.

Let’s not forget sensory experiences when we talk about emotions. Many autistic people report feeling distressed at the sound of crying. It can be highly triggering, and if an individual is in fight, flight, or freeze due to a sensory reaction instead of showing sympathy for a crying person, it is considered a highly inappropriate response.

In this case it would be essential to understand the depth of the sensory response. This is very difficult for the autistic person, and sensory integration therapy to address the response to the crying adults, children or babies would be the first order of business. At the same time, you could teach the person how to remove themselves from the unpleasant sound, and what words they can use as a cover story. This way, you can teach them self-advocacy and social understanding concurrent to seeking sensory help.

If crying is how one measures the emotional impact on a person, autistic people may be negatively judged here as well. Some individuals cannot tolerate feeling overwhelmed with emotion, and will do their best to avoid crying themselves. This stoicism is often interpreted as lacking empathy when it is actually self-preservation. The person cannot stand the sensation of losing emotional control in this way.

Deficits in social communication needed for nurturing relationships are also commonly present in autism across the spectrum. This simply means a person may not know what they need to say to you to show empathy when your boyfriend dumps you, when you didn’t get that job you were hoping for, or when you lost your wedding ring.

While many typical people may admit they don’t “feel” your distress, they will know the right words to say. An autistic person might need to be taught this — they may not realize how important it is for building and maintaining relationships to show support and empathy in these situations. It has to be taught.

Let’s not forget anxiety when we are talking about empathy. In order to show empathy, one needs to notice that something has happened, and that someone is not happy. When an autistic person is consumed by their own anxiety, it is hard to pay attention to anything. Our world becomes very small as we hyper-focus on our perception of imminent danger — even though no danger exists. An autistic person struggling with clinical anxiety may not be aware of what is going on around them, and so they miss the opportunity to provide support to anyone else.

These are just a few of the reasons autistic people are accused of lacking empathy.

I promise you this: autistic people do not lack empathy. If we do fail to acknowledge your pain, this means there are gaps in our understanding. The challenge is to figure out what we need and then figure out how to provide that lesson or experience. What we don’t want to do is catch a child being autistic — catch him or her not knowing any different — and then shaming and blaming them for it. Instead, let’s identify what they have yet to learn, and find a way to provide it.

If that sounds like a tall order, I feel you, but autistic kids can be quick learners if we approach these situations in consideration of their dignity.

Photo provided by contributor.