A lack of empathy or a misunderstanding of emotions?
For many years I have held the misconception that people with autism lack empathy - no longer! It was not until a speaker at the AT-autism conference on managing challenging behaviour spoke about how he believed that he was too empathetic that I began to rethink - could this be possible? For this inspiring man it was, he has found himself ever since he can remember obsessing over the feelings of others and worrying about whether he has upset someone. He described a struggle, not of living a life without empathy, but living a life misunderstanding where this emotion begins and should stop. He described how very often his feelings of empathy would develop into feelings of guilt, sadness and anger - he did not truly understand his feelings of empathy, and often misunderstood these feelings, taking on full responsibility for the pain of others. These feelings of guilt and responsibility, very often escalated into feelings of anxiety and depression.
Since this revolution in my understanding of how some people with autism can experience the emotions of others, I have seen this more and more. Observing some of the children I work with over the past few weeks I have seen similar responses of anxiety and sadness as a result of the boundaries of empathy and guilt seemingly being crossed. Could it be that children with autism don’t lack empathy or the ability to care about others, but that many children with autism have difficulty in separating their own feelings from those of others? Would it therefore be beneficial to our young people if we did more work around scenario deconstruction - giving ownership to the emotions involved and talking things through in an attempt to explain the difference between feeling sad for someone because of what they are experiencing - showing empathy - and feeling sad because of what we have said or done - showing guilt. I believe through more talk and visual representations of scenarios we can remove the abstract boundaries between empathy and guilt, and alleviate some of the anxiety and sadness that young people with autism can often feel because of a misunderstanding of emotions, and not a lack of empathy.