In layman terms, to have empathy is to simply put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. However, if we are to look at empathy more in depth, there are various forms of and ways to show empathy (i.e. emotional and cognitive empathy). Emotional empathy is to vicariously experience another’s emotional state, while cognitive empathy is to accurately imagine another’s experience through perspective-taking (McDonald & Messinger, 2011). In order for us to show empathy to others, we first have to understand their circumstances and experiences. In this case, to show empathy for children with autism, we have to understand how they experience, and what the world is like through their lenses.
The best way to understand what the disorder entails, is to have some firsthand experiences with children with autism, open discussions with professionals in the field, or speak to individuals with family members with autism. Such interactions and/or anecdotes will help you learn a great deal about the neurological disorder by solidifying what you already know, correcting any misconceptions, and shedding light on aspects you did not know about. The next best alternative would be to turn to the ever so accessible World Wide Web where information is infinite. There are plenty of websites and YouTube videos on the topic of autism, and even a movie titled “The Reason I Jump” (Rothwell, 2020) based on a book written by a child with autism on the behaviours and events that go on in his head, and how he perceives the world. Acquiring these information will enable you to understand children on the spectrum more and thus, formally allowing you to better empathise with them.
To kickstart your journey, here are three things we believe are useful for you to know about our neurodivergent friends and how you can show them empathy.
1. Children with autism tend to have difficulties in social communication.
As children with autism tend to have delayed or language impairments while some remain non-verbal, it can be difficult for them to use expressive language to communicate with others (Mody & Belliveau, 2013). Neurotypical children use language for social reasons, such as to initiate or contribute to a conversation. Meanwhile, children with ASD often only use language to regulate their environment (e.g. requesting for something) and face difficulty using language abstractly (Denworth, 2018). For many, even answering questions like “What is your name?” or “How are you?” can be challenging and they have to be taught how to answer. As a result, children with autism are mistaken to be unwelcoming of social interactions. However, it could not be further from the truth. Children with autism do enjoy social interactions but may not be equipped with the necessary skills to do so. Although, at other times, they may appreciate some personal space and alone time too. Hence, the next time you try to engage a child with autism in a conversation and it seems like they are writing you off, know that it is not intentional or because they are ill-mannered, and if they appear to rather be on their own, we should also respect their time and space.
2. Stimming behaviours are common and normal, and occur due to various reasons.
Some common examples of stims (self-stimulating behaviours) are: jumping, arm flapping, rocking, hair pulling, and repeating of words or phrases (echolalia) (Weiss, 2019). Individuals with autism could engage in these behaviours when they are over or understimulated, to manage their emotions, or to self-regulate (Wang, 2021). Thus, the next time you come across a child with autism who is displaying stimming behaviour, you can show empathy by understanding that there is something they are going through internally, and possibly think of what might be the cause of it and how you can help, rather than passing off the judgement that “they are just weird”.
3. They do not always handle novelty and changes in routine well.
Change, even for neurotypical individuals, can be a frightening thing as it involves us walking into the unknown. As a result, individuals with autism tend to be rigid and adhere to routines as it is a source of comfort and regularity. Changes in routine or sudden surprises can elicit incredible amounts of anxiety and cause them to throw a fit (Applied Behavior Analysis Edu, 2021). Therefore, you can show empathy when you see a child with autism reacting to irregularities in their routine by acknowledging their struggle and trying to help them adapt and ease to their new situation in the least anxiety-provoking way possible.
Written by: Brenda
Applied Behavior Analysis Edu. (2021, August 17). Why is routine so important to people with ASD? Applied Behavioral Analysis. https://www.appliedbehavioranalysisedu.org/why-is-routine-so-important-to-people-with-asd/
Denworth, L. (2020, April 16). Social Communication in autism, explained. Spectrum. https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/social-communication-autism-explained/
McDonald, N. M., & Messinger, D. S. (2011). The development of empathy: How, when, and why. Moral Behavior and Free Will: A Neurobiological and Philosophical Approach, 333-359.
Mody, M., & Belliveau, J. W. (2013). Speech and language impairments in autism: insights from behavior and neuroimaging. North American Journal of Medicine & Science, 5(3), 157-161.
Rothwell, J. (Director). (2020). The Reason I Jump [Film]. Vulcan Productions.
Wang, K. (2021, July 23). Autism and Stimming. Child Mind Institute. https://childmind.org/article/autism-and-stimming/
Weiss, J. (2019, April 16). 5 lessons all parents should teach their kids about autism. FamilyEducation. https://www.familyeducation.com/autism/teaching-kids-about-autism