Mental Health Guest Posts

What The Experts Have Wrong About Empathy & Autism

Conventional wisdom tells us that learners with autism either have a radically reduced capacity for empathy, or no empathy at all. Like so much of the historical perceptions of autism, this is not only wrong, but actually damaging to repeat.

Conventional wisdom tells us that learners with autism either have a radically reduced capacity for empathy or no empathy at all. Like so much of the historical perceptions of autism, this is not only wrong but actually damaging to repeat.

The truth is, most people with autism have difficulties with social communication. This, along with their restrictive repetitive patterns of behaviour, makes up the ‘dyad of impairment’ that is often shown in a Venn diagram to explain what autism is. As we are all now aware, autism is a spectrum condition and manifests itself very differently in each individual, which is why it has only been successfully categorised in the last 35 years.

I work at a specialist alternative education provider which caters for young people with Asperger’s and high functioning autism. We have recently employed a Speech & Language Therapist to assist our young people with various social communication challenges. These young people have a good vocabulary, and many are highly intelligent,  but they often struggle to spot context and metaphors during conversations. Many are introverted and may appear to lack empathy. However, drawing the conclusion that they lack empathy is to make an assumption based on surface-level appearances. As is so often true with autism, digging a little deeper is required to uncover the truth. Let me give you an example.

For the past 3 years, I have been working with a young man with autism who gets crippling anxiety when experiencing new things and whenever faced with social interaction. When I started working with him he had completely stopped attending a mainstream state school. He had a deep mistrust of professionals and was adept at avoidance tactics to get out of any social situation, to reduce his anxiety. I began by seeing him in a one-to-one situation, once a week for 30 minutes. I managed to increase this to an hour and a half, twice a week over the course of two years. This year, he has been able to attend a regular class with four other young people and has even engaged in group work with them.

And what has this got to do with empathy? Well, this achievement was only realised because this young man heard about a new starter in my class, another young man who also had huge anxieties similar to his own. Time and again, he said to me ‘That’s so sad, we need to help him.’ He suggested strategies for my new student to overcome his barriers and attended my class to try and make the process easier for my new student. This is not a lack of empathy being displayed; rather, an excess of it. However, for this empathy to show itself took years of breaking down his own barriers to improvement.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Limpsfield Grange, a maintained school in Surrey for girls with autism. It is the only institution of its kind, certainly in the UK (and perhaps in the world). The head teacher, Sarah Wild, told me how one of their students described her experience with empathy:

Other peoples’ emotions are like mud, and that mud sticks to me. If someone is sad, I feel sad too, and when they no longer feel sad, their emotion is still stuck to me for the rest of the day.’ 

Clearly, this is not a lack of empathy. And yet, someone observing this student’s behaviour without context could mistake this situation for a young person unempathetic to the world around them, unless the observer understood what had caused this behaviour.

It seems that when it comes to empathy and autism, we should ensure that we understand the context of each situation, and try not to take things too literally.

Written by Pip Burley    

Follow on Twitter: @PipDBurley

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