Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, and sympathy, the perception of distress and misfortune of others, are complex social skills. They involve an understanding of both non-verbal and verbal cues – something that doesn’t come naturally for many people on the autism spectrum. There is also a generalized misconception that stereotypes all people with autism as lacking empathy and being generally unable to understand emotions.
Shift in perspective
It is true that most people with autism do not express emotions in the same manner as neurotypical people do. However, a lack of expression doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of emotion, but it rather points towards underdeveloped skills.
For the longest time, lack of empathy was considered universally to be a trait associated with autism. But recent studies prove that it can vary with the individual. In fact, a study focused on teaching empathetic responsiveness to autistic children has shown promising results. With a little extra help from parents and caregivers, autistic children can develop these social skills and display empathetic behaviour.
The character arc of beloved fictional characters who are on the spectrum like Sheldon Cooper in the Big Bang Theory, Dr Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor, and Abed Nadir in Community also portray a similar trajectory. While in the initial episodes they display apathy towards the feelings of other characters, they develop sensitivity and empathy over time with the help of supportive friends and co-workers.
In particular, Sheldon’s automatic response of offering a hot beverage to his upset friends is clearly imbibed behaviour from what he has seen in his family. Abed, on the other hand, has learned about human emotions and reactions from television, and often makes use of TV tropes to understand how his friends really feel. Dr Murphy also became a little more aware of how his words impacted those around him over the course of several seasons.
World Kindness Day
To be able to display the emotions of empathy and sympathy, autistic children must first learn how to recognise the feelings of others. Having relatable emotional experiences and acquiring tools for the physical and verbal expression of empathy can also help them become more adept at empathetic and sympathetic responses.
In celebration of World Kindness Day, observed on November 13 each year, today we will discuss how parents can teach their autistic children to show empathy.
- They learn what they see
Children develop a deeper understanding of social and emotional cues by observing their parents. While it isn’t always possible for empathetic behaviour to be clearly visible, try to attach visual and verbal cues to your empathetic actions. For example, ask questions like, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Can I help?’ or a simple ‘I’m sorry that happened,’ ‘It’s okay to feel upset about it.’ Similarly, make sure you use facial expressions that are appropriate for the situation at hand. Using appropriate gestures is also equally important.
- Use positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is a great tool at the parents’ disposal that can enforce correct behaviour in children. If your child engages in appropriate behaviour, make sure you appreciate it. This appreciation can come in various forms. Use verbal expressions like, ‘How kind of you to ask your friend if they’re okay!’ ‘It is great that you want to help!’ etc., can lead to an increased frequency of such behaviour. So can a small material incentive like their favourite snack, or a few minutes of extra screen time/playtime etc. In the long term, this will become a habit.
- Use pretend play
Pretend play is an amazing playtime activity that can, among other things, help children learn to consider other people’s perspectives. It can also teach them how to balance their ideas with those of others by becoming better listeners. Create different scenarios where you can model empathetic and sympathetic responses for them. You can also go ahead and relate real-life events with these pretend scenarios to drive your point home.
- Encourage practice
The more your child can practice empathy, the better. Prompt them to engage in empathetic behaviour with their peers and siblings. Watch them interact with others and help them with appropriate responses where they falter. Don’t hesitate to talk to them about your own feelings. I-messages, where emotions immediately follow the statements that invoke them, also come in handy in these situations. A few examples of I-messages are, ‘I don’t like it when you don’t listen to me, I feel unheard and sad. Can we please talk?’ ‘I like how you asked me if I was okay after I hurt my finger. It made me feel happy,’ etc.
One thing that years of research have shown us is that the expression of empathy can also be atypical for neurodiverse people. Every autistic person is unique. While empathy might not come naturally to some people on the autism spectrum, it is a valuable interpersonal skill that can be nurtured from early childhood.
To go back to our examples from the world of television, Sam Gardener from Atypical described it the best when he said, “People think autistic people don’t have empathy, but that’s not true. Sometimes I can’t tell if someone’s upset but, once I know, I feel lots of empathy… maybe even more than neurotypicals.”