Do autistic children really lack empathy?

20 December 2014

Dear Friend,

It is interesting that in Holland there is no direct translation for the word empathy. The concept/idea does not exist. Sympathy yes but not empathy. So what is the difference between sympathy and empathy and do autistic children have the ability to sympathise or empathise? 

Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably.  Empathy refers to the understanding and sharing of a specific emotional state with another person. Sympathy does not require the sharing of the same emotional state. Instead, sympathy is a concern for the well-being of another. (Wikipedia.)

We have been told and have read many times that autistic children lack empathy. This thinking stems back to the Sally Anne test by Simon Baron-Cohen whose research data purported to indicate a lack of theory of mind in autistic children. I have always struggled with this idea as from an early age the big lad certainly displayed sympathy. He would cuddle me when I was upset and was very caring towards friends who had fallen or who cried, often crying too. It was almost as though he felt their emotions too much. 

As a child, at Christmas time we were encouraged to sort through our toys and anything that we had grown too old for, or tired of, we donated to a local charity, a children's home. I wanted to carry on this tradition and encouraged the big lad to do the same. I showed him a website from a local charity which supports Romanian orphans. He was inconsolable! He asks us to turn off adverts by charity organisations and for a while we couldn't watch the news because it upset him so much he couldn't sleep. 

In December, we went to Cologne to the Christmas markets. Big lad laughed at a man sleeping in a doorway so I explained that the man was homeless. The big lad got really upset and said, why do you have to tell me  these things my head can't cope with it! 

Is he sympathising or does his depth of emotion demonstrate empathy?

I don't know!

But it is reassuring to see that other people are also wrestling with this issue.
Far from him being the unfeeling rather robotic child we read about his problem appears to be that he feels only extremes of emotion and doesn't really have an emotional thermometer. 

The following article addresses these issues well and is great to have the perspective of autistic people.

“A ground-breaking theory suggests people with autism-spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s do not lack empathy – rather, they feel others’ emotions too intensely.

Photography @My_Dutch_Angle

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