Autism, Alexithymia and Empathy: What you need to know

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Recognise that a lack of eye contact doesn’t mean a lack of caring or understanding.
Recognise that a lack of eye contact doesn’t mean a lack of caring or understanding.

Mimi Nicklin hosts Empathy for Breakfast, a weekly breakfast show, and a podcast, Secrets of the Gap. She is also a mom and a best-selling author of Softening the Edge. Here she explains Autism, Alexithymia and Empathy... 

Empathy, humanity’s oldest trait, is the magical, yet natural human ability to deeply understand those around us, to walk in their shoes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this always came naturally to us and our children?

There are days when seeing through their eyes, a vibrant and noisy world of wonder, can be an easy step of the imagination.

Yet, there are others when we can’t simply imagine how to see things the way their young eyes do. 

As parents we try to support our children in every way we can. Empathising with them, as well as teaching them that same skill with others, is an everyday journey for us as they grow up. There is a common misconception that that children (and adults) with autism are individuals who lack empathy and cannot understand emotion. 

While it’s true that many people with autism don’t show emotion in the same ways that people without the condition might activate, or that they have a hard time recognising social cues, the notion that people with autism lack empathy and cannot recognize feelings is incorrect.

Is it perhaps true that people without autism find it hard to empathise with those with the condition far more than is the case the other way round?

On the Youtube channel "ChoosingMorality," an autistic vlogger talks about this exact misunderstanding as she experiences it: "I truly care. I care more than most people. I think that is one of the … symptoms of, of an autistic person, or at least some … I don’t know, but I know that I care so much." 

Children with autism are of course often seen responding to the emotions of others with empathy. They may react to seeing their mother cry, or another child scream in pain as they fall from a swing or respond to sadness in family movie. Their response may not always be one that we expect, but their empathy for others is recognizably active and authentic. 

There is a fine but clear line between autism and alexithymia (a condition where people cannot recognise or identify their emotions).It is generally understood that while approximately 10% of the population at large struggle with alexithymia, up to 50% of people with autism may struggle with it.

That leaves us with data that over half of children with autism are likely to be able to empathise, and that they can learn to practice this from us and our role modeling as parents and care givers.

While avoidance of eye contact can be a common reality for children with autism, making it harder to observe the emotions of others, there are other ways we can bring empathy into our relationships with them:

1) Identify unique and personal displays of empathy – it may not be consistent with a common understanding but that doesn’t make it any less powerful.

2) Recognise that a lack of eye contact doesn’t mean a lack of caring or understanding. Look for less conventional methods of communication that show deep understanding between you.

3) Gain insider knowledge to help you on your shared journey to build empathy both ways. Sarai Pahla’s TED Talk, Women & Autism is a deeply inspiring and eye-opening piece of content.

To close, some inspiring words from autistic scholar Dawn Prince-Hughes who once wrote of her own autism "My world is a place where people are too beautiful and too terrible to look at, where their mouths speak words that sometimes fall silent on my ears, while their hearts break audibly." 

No greater words of empathy may ever have been written.


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