Asperger’s and the Empathy Debate
I still remember the conversation with one of my son’s preschool teachers like it was yesterday. “We’re concerned that your son doesn’t show empathy in his interactions with other kids.” This was three years before his Asperger’s diagnosis, and it was just one of many concerns voiced by his teachers during that difficult first year of preschool.
The research and literature on autism and Asperger’s Syndrome is rife with references to empathy. The traditional view has been that individuals on the spectrum lack empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. However, in the past few years, this view has been increasingly challenged. In 2009, a study conducted by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Brain Mind Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, suggested that not only do individuals on the autism spectrum have empathy, but they actually feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope. Kamila Markram states, ”There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough. We’re saying exactly the opposite: they feel too much.”
The Markrams are also the co-originators of the Intense World theory of autism, which proposes that the autistic brain is characterized by hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity of neurons. This is thought to lead to greatly enhanced perception, attention, and memory, which may lie at the heart of most autistic symptoms. Their theory suggests that the fundamental problem in autism spectrum disorders is not a social and empathetic deficiency, but rather a hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response.
What does this mean to parents of children with Asperger’s Syndrome?
It can mean a major shift in how you support your child. Your focus to date may have been on helping your child develop empathy – teaching him or her how to better understand and respond to the feelings of others. If the Intense World theory is correct, attempting to teach your child empathy may only bring limited success – your child is already an empathetic individual, and what he really needs is support coping with his intense emotions so he can express empathy more appropriately.
How can this new understanding be applied to help kids with Asperger’s?
If the Intense World theory resonates with you, and you think it accurately describes your child’s reality, consider the following approaches:
- comfort or calm your child the next time he is in a situation where empathy is the appropriate response (e.g. another child has been hurt) - if necessary, prompt him for the “right” response after he is calm
- focus on addressing your child’s underlying emotions or fears that interfere with the appropriate expression of empathy
- do not punish your child for inappropriate responses or failure to show empathy, as this may increase the stress or fear your child associates with these types of situations
- manage the amount of stimulation in your child’s environment (both from other people and various sensory input) so that he has sufficient down-time where his brain is not in “hyper-reactive” mode
The gist of the Intense World theory is that the autistic brain must be calmed down, learning must be slowed, and cognitive functions must be diminished in order for the autistic individual to deal effectively with life and other people – including the expression of empathy. In other words, autistics are too high-functioning in some respects and this is what causes their challenges. It’s definitely a paradigm shift!
I asked my son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, why he sometimes reacts the way he does when someone else gets hurt. His answer seems to support the Intense World theory - he said “Sometimes the pain in my heart is so strong, that it comes out as anger against the person who got hurt.” He has made a lot of progress in expressing empathy appropriately, but a stronger emphasis on helping him deal with the intensity of his emotions may just be the key to helping him master this important skill.
Does your child struggle with empathy? What have you found helpful? Share your thoughts in the comments!
About the Author: Julie Fischer is the mother of two children, the elder of whom has Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on her blog, The Aspergersphere: Solutions for Parents of Kids with Asperger Syndrome, and is reprinted by permission.