Empathy basically means walking in someone else’s shoes. However, is it really the case that people on the autism spectrum are not able to have empathy? Are they really unable to understand the other company’s feelings, thoughts, and situations?
Empathy, literally, is a tool that helps us adapt to the social world and communicate effectively with the individuals around us. It helps us understand why others have and experience their feelings, thoughts, intentions, and behavior and adjust ourselves accordingly.
The reason why empathy cannot be understood by individuals with autism is that it has a very complex structure for them. It is possible to distinguish the two definitions in general terms. We can categorize these as cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to a more mental perspective and understanding of thoughts, while emotional empathy is more emotion-focused as the name implied.
Empathy and Autism
Lack of social communication or disorders in social communication is one of the main symptoms of autism. In other words, individuals with autism have problems understanding the thoughts of the people around them, recognizing their emotions, and responding to them with appropriate emotions and thoughts. This suggests that they have difficulty understanding social cues.
But on the other hand, there are scientific studies that show that their difficulties in reading social cues are not a lack of empathy. Although previous studies have shown that individuals with autism do not care about the feelings and thoughts of others, recent studies show that this point of view is not quite correct. They show that individuals with autism also have a sense of compassion, but they do not know how to show it.
Many different studies have been conducted over the years on the relationship between autism and lack of empathy. These studies also include many different perspectives. In the beginning, a lack of empathy was thought to be a symptom of autism, according to studies. But a lack of empathy is not a trait that can be a symptom of a disorder. It is observed in neurotypical individuals at least as much as it is observed in individuals with autism.
It is a common fact that individuals with autism have a different mindset than neurotypical individuals. Although this is one of their strong features, it can cause misunderstandings in terms of social interaction. It causes people around them to perceive the way people with autism choose to interact as a lack of empathy.
A neurotypical individual may react when people around him or her have emotional problems or behave inappropriately in social interaction situations. However, an individual with autism may act cold and harsh in the same situation. This situation awakens the idea that an individual with autism lacks empathy. But, it wouldn’t be the case. Probably, they do not know how to react and behave according to the situation.
While individuals with autism have problems with cognitive empathy, they may not experience emotional empathy. While cognitive empathy is the difficulty in understanding what an emotion is, emotional empathy is having trouble feeling that emotion. While both may seem the same to individuals outside the spectrum, they are actually quite different. To give an example, we can explain it as follows. They may see someone struggling while carrying things, but they may not think that they need help, on the other hand, they may realize that they are upset about this situation.
What we call empathy in society is actually reading between the lines. And yes, individuals with autism have difficulty reading between the lines. Communication skills are insufficient to understand how the people around them feel. As the most classic example of this situation, you just got out of the hairdresser’s and asked an individual with autism how your haircut looked. In this case, people are generally sensitive, but if the subject is an individual with autism, he may answer no directly without caring about his mood and emotions.
Therefore, instead of saying that individuals with autism lack empathy, it would be more accurate to say that they do not meet the expectations of society.
Empathy occurs at different levels not only among individuals with autism but also among neurotypical people. The only difference is that while this is a congenital condition in neurotypical individuals, individuals with autism may need to learn this. Individuals with autism may need instructions in recognizing emotions. Thanks to these feelings they recognize, their ability to empathize begin to develop.
Although individuals with autism have difficulty understanding the emotions and thoughts of neurotypical individuals and cannot empathize, exactly the opposite may be true for neurotypical people. Neurotypical individuals may also have difficulty empathizing with individuals with autism. This is perhaps the healthiest way to approach a lack of empathy. Because the social interaction and communication gap between them can be closed in this way.
What Do Educators Say About the Relationship Between Autism and Empathy?
According to educators, individuals with autism have difficulties in social communication, not empathy. They have difficulty empathizing, but the level of this also varies depending on where they are on the spectrum.
Educators say that in order to learn about emotions, individuals with autism must first learn to label their own emotions. They also need instructions in this direction. Once they learn to label their own emotions, they can begin to understand the emotional states of the people around them and act accordingly.
These skills begin to be taught in the school setting. Educators also often use the modeling method. It is an easier and more effective method. They learn about emotions, how emotions look in social settings, how to label them, how to respond to those emotions, and how they can change in context. By repeating these situations with the modeling method, they have the opportunity to develop their empathy skills.
Individuals with autism can learn emotions with guidance. Autism, which emerges in early childhood and causes retardation, limitation, repetitive movements in social interaction, and communication skills, prevents empathy with the people around them. Stating that children with autism have difficulty in making sense of emotions, experts also point out that these individuals can learn emotions under the guidance of a person.
Studies show that four basic emotions are innate in newborns. These emotions are happiness, sadness, disgust, and trust. Over time, children develop the ability to understand and express emotions. It turns into 80 kinds of emotions and their degrees, such as shame, jealousy, joy, fear, and other emotions. The development of emotions is related to the ability to empathize. Children with autism, on the other hand, lack empathy. They have difficulty understanding emotions. We call this contextual blindness. Therefore, they should learn emotions under the guidance of a person.
Individuals with autism may have a nervous breakdown in any situation where they feel pressure and may close themselves to the outside world. This is called an abnormal stress response. Forcing an answer to a difficult question, forcing eye contact, crowd, noise, excessive light, social expectations, and need for sleep or food can trigger such situations. If stress instability is high enough, it causes the child to become withdrawn, which in turn damages the child’s brain. The family should know how to calm their children in this situation.
In addition, the behavior pattern that causes the crisis should be identified and the child should be helped to overcome this fear. If they have special toys and objects that provide a sense of security and mental balance, or if they have behaviors that they love, such as swinging, driving, and listening to the sound of the vacuum cleaner, they should be offered to these children with autism.
We can say that for individuals with autism, love is a mysterious situation and this mystery cannot be solved without guidance. Individuals on the autism spectrum try to categorize love as an object. They may see it as something that needs to be acquired. Because they are contextually blind, they do not know how to show love and they love people in their own way.
Many individuals with autism live as adults who are married and have children. Just because they are on the spectrum, it does not mean that their children have autism as well. The partner of a person with autism should consider the way they communicate and take responsibility for helping them manage money, find a job, and defend themselves.
In children with autism, areas of the brain related to love do not fully develop. As they cannot perceive the love of the other party, they cannot understand their pain. They are mostly self-focused and it is not possible to see any signs of love in individuals with severe autism. It is observed that if individuals with mild autism are assisted, they learn to love.
Types of love can be taught with the support of observation and art therapy, provided that it does not cause undue stress. Elaborating emotions in context sensitivity also works. Love of friendship, compassion, passion and facial expressions should be taught. Nonverbal communication skills, gestures, and facial expressions are also subjects that need to be studied.
Professionals state that individuals with autism do not have a sense of humor and cannot understand idioms, allusions, and jokes. But even if they don’t understand, they can learn over time. They may not fully understand idioms because their basic language skills are not fully developed. They do not make eye contact and do not use gestures and facial expressions. When they start to make eye contact, their communication skills also begin to develop.
Even if you look at a 6-year-old autistic child with love, you may encounter fear and anger with the “don’t look at me like that” response, or you may see him respond to a loving expression by closing his ears. Emotional reactions, which are few in childhood and adolescence, may not be fully developed even in adulthood. They do not tend to show interesting things to other people. The tendency to not respond to interesting things that others show them is called social or joint attention, which is hard to develop.
Empathy in Females With Autism Spectrum Disorder
Empathy studies on women with autism were mostly conducted with individuals close to the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. According to these studies, women with autism generally evaluated physical pain in the same way as their peers. Social pain situations, on the other hand, are more difficult for them to understand. They may have difficulty sharing their emotional state and perspective of the social environment. They look at the situation from a more egocentric perspective.
At the neural system level, women with high-functioning autism may also feel the same level of physical and social pain as their peers. However, women with autism rely less on representations of emotions, cannot understand the other person’s point of view, and cannot make sense of shame. They may have a hard time distinguishing between all these feelings.
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