Do you know a child or adult with autism or Asperger’s syndrome who seems to be blind to the feelings of others? Do you ever ask yourself…
- How do I get him to see that the world doesn’t revolve around him?
- How do I teach my child with autism to understand that others have feelings and needs too?
- How can I get him to help out around here without constantly nagging him?
Ultimately, this is a problem of lack of empathy. Your loved one on the autism spectrum simply does not understand others’ feelings or how to empathize with others.
Tips to Help a Child or Adult with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome Develop Empathy
To try to help you understand how you can help your child with best therapy for autism or Asperger’s syndrome to understand and feel the emotions of others, I have asked a young adult with Asperger’s syndrome to share her live experiences with us. Hearing the words and experiences of a young woman with Asperger’s syndrome hopefully will give you insights into how people on the autism spectrum think and how their brain works.
With these insights you will be able to help teach your loved one to better understand others.
This is part of a series of “Friendship Academy” newsletters written by a young adult with Asperger’s.
Young Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome Accommodate Each Others’ Needs
Last night, I found myself going to a play with some friends (who also have Asperger’s syndrome), most of whom I had known for many years. We did the things for each other that most people who had known each other for many years would — mainly, we accepted and worked around each others’ quirks. We knew each other well enough to know how to do this.
One of our friends with Asperger’s syndrome has a challenge with traffic. Another has time issues etc. We accommodated one friend’s need to avoid traffic in driving to the play, made sure to give extra explanation of what we were doing to a second friend, and made sure to leave on time for a third friend who hates being late.
I was allowed to choose our seats, because I can be pretty particular about where I’m sitting.
Accommodating the Needs of Others is a Skill that Those with Asperger’s Syndrome Have to Learn
This may seem pretty commonplace to you, but it’s actually a skill that takes a while to grow in most people with Asperger’s syndrome — considering the needs of others, and making a sacrifice, however small, in your own comfort to accommodate them.
More and more I have been considering the matter of empathy in people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. I am sure many of you parents have been considering it too. “How do I get my child with autism to consider the needs of others?” you may think. “How do I get my child with autism to see that the world doesn’t revolve around him?” “How can I get my child with autism to help out around here without constantly nagging him?”
What Affects A Person’s Ability for Empathy – Whether or Not they have Autism?
A big part of being able to empathize with others depends on a person’s age and emotional readiness. Theory of mind, the theory that others have thoughts and needs other than yours, takes a while to develop. In people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome in can take longer yet, as we are talking about a development delay here.
Sensory Overwhelm in Children with Autism
One reason that children with autism often do not empathize with others is sensory overwhelm — when the world is so overwhelming to you on a daily basis, it’s really hard to think about others. A person with Asperger’s syndrome may feel that they can just barely keeping your head above water. But we find that even children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, when they get old enough and learn better coping strategies, they eventually have more energy to expend on others–and begin to appreciate the feelings of others.
But part of it is experience. I’ve come to believe that since kids with autism and Asperger’s syndrome don’t have the same social experiences as others. Therefore, it can be really hard for these children with autism to relate in what would be called a normal way to “common” experiences that others have.
As one young adult with Asperger’s syndrome I know puts it, “I have great theory of mind with other Aspies. I can read them just fine. It is typical people I have trouble with!”
Children with Autism Don’t Learn In Early Childhood How to Relate to Others
Think about the childhood of a typical child. Lots of rough and tumble games, competitive sports, team building activities, slumber parties — endless opportunities for the neurons in the brain to make connections of “This is how it’s done, this is what other people are like.”
If I poke my friend Jimmy, he’ll say Ow. If I share my candy bar with Jimmy, he’ll smile at me. If we both score the winning goal on a soccer team, I feel good about him and he feels good about me — a sense of connection. These basic connections are the building blocks for a sense of belonging, for self-confidence, and for being able to relate to others and understand their needs. But this is often not the case for children with autism.
Children with Autism May Never Develop Social Skills
Now think of a child with an autism spectrum disorder. Maybe he just prefers to play alone, and the diagnosis is not caught until much later, especially if he does well in school. Maybe he is diagnosed, but due to sensory issues and developmental delays cannot handle playing with other kids.
He may memorize the A-L section of the Encyclopedia Britannica and be able to recite full movie scripts, but other kids just seem like foreign objects which he has no idea what to do with. Those connections, therefore, are never made for many children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.
Sympathy versus Empathy in Children with Autism
It is often said that sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone but can’t really relate to what they are going through. Empathy is said to be when you can relate to what they are going through because you went through the same thing or a similar enough experience that you can feel their emotions. Many children with autism or kids with Asperger’s syndrome may have one or both of these things, but just show it differently.
Why Don’t Kids with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome Develop Empathy?
The reactions of a child with autism may be delayed due to having so many things going through his or her head all the time and being over focused on their environment. The subtleties of understand another’s feelings and emotions are lost as he or she simply tries to survive the over-stimulating environment in which they live. They might understand and sense another’s feels and think “That’s rough” but forget to say it, or it may occur to them hours later when they are processing the conversation.
One Adult with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome Relates Her Experience
I recall a phone conversation I was having with someone not long ago. We were talking about some issues I was having, and then suddenly the person said she had to go because her elderly mother had just had a fall and she had to call to check up on her. I continued talking about my situation for a minute and then said goodbye. After I hung up I realized I hadn’t commented on the situation with her mother or expressed any concern — and I was concerned! It’s just that it took a few minutes for my brain to switch gears between thinking about me and thinking about her.
On another note, if a person’s empathy comes largely from shared experiences and a person with autism or Asperger’s syndrome is lacking many common social experiences, it is easy to see why this sense of empathy can be often absent or delayed.
We can see here the different ways that empathy may be slow to develop in someone with high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome. It is still there, but it needs the right circumstances to come out.
What Can A Parent of a Child with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome Do?
A parent can help their child understand others’ emotions. As you watch your child, think to yourself…
- Does Sammy understand that his grandmother is sad?
- Does Tina see that her friend is worried about her sick brother?
If you sense that your child misses emotional cues, ask your child to focus on what the other person is thinking and feeling. How is the other person feeling? How would YOU feel in the same situation?
After all, most children with high functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome are quite intelligent. They can be taught. But many parents forget or do not notice that their children with autism miss the signals that a neurotypical child sees. By pointing out to your child that another child is worried, scared, sad or happy, it will help them develop the skills necessary to develop a sense of empathy for others.