But any parent with a child on the autism spectrum knows that outward appearances can be deceiving. Our loved ones with Asperger's syndrome of high functioning autism are very caring and feeling beings. But they often have difficulties understanding the feelings of others which is a contributing factor to the well known autism symptom -- lack of social skills. Often times, we see this inability to understand another person's feelings as a lack of empathy.
How Can a Person with Asperger's Syndrome Develop a Sense of Empathy and Improve Social Skills?
Lack of emotional readiness, sensory overwhelm, and lack of relevant experiences can all contribute and help explain why your child with Asperger's syndrome may seem distant or uncaring of others feelings.
In this article, we will talk about the process of developing empathy -- an important ingredient in improving social skills. Below, a young adult with Asperger's syndrome shares her experiences and feelings to help us understand how those with Asperger's syndrome feel and cope.
If a child with Asperger's syndrome or high functioning autism is disconnected from people when he is young, due to different brain wiring, this sense of difference is likely to persist and cause him to withdraw from people and experiences over the years. The more he thinks of himself as a person who can't connect with other people, the less likely he will be to try.
In order to develop social skills, one must practice. But if a child continually fails in his or her social interactions, they will eventually become discouraged and give up.
Experiences of a Young Adult with Asperger's Syndrome --
I moved to a house with a 94 year old, very vibrant and active roommate two years ago. This woman, Madeline, has the most welcoming smile and presence I have ever felt. I immediately felt calm and comfortable in her presence, which never happens for me. I started spending more and more time with her, watching TV and talking about nothing important -- just soaking up her gentleness and positivity, her utter acceptance of me. Every time she smiled at me, it made me happy.
I thought this behavior -- willingly spending time with another person -- quite out of character for me, but I kept doing it. Madeline was always happy to see me. Merely entering the room could make her face light up. Therefore I started feeling a sense of connection to her.
Some of these principles, especially high affect -- Madeline was a very passionate speaker with highly evident emotions -- as well as pure acceptance, gentleness and meeting someone on common ground are some of the very principles of the autism therapy floortime. (Floortime is a therapy designed to increase emotional and cognitive connections in an autistic person's brain, and to bring the person slowly into the world around them by first joining them in their world.)
Madeline had wonderful social skills. She had the ability to make me feel welcomes and to draw me out.
My Relationship with My Roommate Increases My Empathy and Improved My Social Skills --
After I had been living here about seven months, Madeline had to go to the hospital for about two weeks because of a problem in her leg. The first night she was there, I worried about her constantly. I kept thinking "But she was always talking about how much she hated hospital food!" I hoped she had something good to eat and was being well taken care of.
This probably sounds quite unremarkable, except I had never before worried about someone on quite an emotional level before. I had always expressed sympathy (when I remembered) and felt intellectually things like "I hope so and so gets better soon. That's terrible. Well, I hope it works out," but never really on a gut stabbing, stomach hurting, almost visceral emotional level before.
It rather took me by surprise. While the feelings were of a negative nature, I was so happy to have them (upon later reflection) because they made me feel so much more connected to the human race! I didn't feel so isolated inside myself when I had those feelings.
So That's What They Were Thinking!
Later on, at different times, two of my friends began having severe health problems of the same sort that I had experienced a few years ago. They were both long distance, so I was limited in what I could do to help them.
I had many long phone conversations with one friend, Elaine, trying to provide both emotional support and practical solutions. After the often hour long conversations, I was drained and in emotional turmoil. I felt helpless. I wanted to ease her pain so much. I wanted to make things better for her. I did what I could, but it wasn't much. It almost felt like too much to deal with, but I would never walk away from her.
After a few phone calls like this, I got an epiphany. So THAT'S what my parents and friends were feeling during all of my crisis phone calls to them! Years before I had called them during my own health crisis in tears. They tried to help, but I just felt more alone. I kept telling them "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!" I was convinced they didn't care, because they often had a hard time showing their emotions about the situation and I had an even harder time reading what they did say.
I would mention something that was bothering me and be hurt when my grandfather would change the subject without any response. "Why didn't you say anything?" I would ask him. "You know how I feel," he would say. "No, I don't!" I would tell him. "Come on, you know I feel bad for you," he'd say. "No, I don't!" I'd repeat.
I truly felt isolated from those that were trying to help me because I couldn't imagine how they were feeling towards me. Why? Because I had never felt that way towards anyone else. How could I even know those feelings existed, or at least know what they felt like?
Relationships Develop Empathy for a Person with Asperger's Syndrome --
If you can understand how others are thinking, you can feel more connected to them. You can understand their needs more and feel the desire to fill them. This, as I understand it, is empathy. Without the kind of interactions and friendships that foster this awareness (that so many on the autism spectrum don't have), you're stuck pretending to be functioning in a world you don't understand one bit, longing for emotional connection and having everyone around you think you're self-centered and uncaring about others. Without these emotional connections you never really can have sufficient social skills to develop deep and nurturing relationships.
I believe empathy lives in every single person -- but the right experiences and circumstances have to be present to bring it out.
Tips for Parents and Those with Asperger's Syndrome or Autism
- Try to expose your child to social situations and experiences that they haven't had before, within the limits of their abilities. Social groups, summer camps, anything that will offer the ability to foster these forms of relationships. Make sure the programs are well matched to your child's needs, though.
- For children, social stories are also a good way for a parent to focus on development of social skills and empathy. You can create your own social stories with your child by drawing pictures of people and events and adding captions to the stores. Perhaps a relative that your child knows was in the hospital. Maybe a friend fell off their bike and scraped their knee. Think of an event that your child can relate to. By developing a story around this event, you can help your child fill in the emotions that the people in the story felt -- worry, fear, sadness -- to help your child with Asperger's syndrome practice empathy.
- You can also purchase books that are specifically designed to teach empathy and feelings. Check out Amazon.com which has arrange of these books.
- Many therapists can help your child with Asperger's syndrome learn social skills by focusing on developing empathy. Check with your school or a local Asperger's syndrome or autism support group. There may be a class offered by your local education department. So many children with autism and Asperger's syndrome need this type of training that classes are common.
- Consider purchasing videos or audio tapes. Many companies sell videos specifically geared to children to help them understand the feelings of others. After all, practice makes perfect. One good thing about videos is that they can help your child read facial expressions. Children with high functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome often have challenges reading facial expressions. Videos can make a point of highlighting the aspects of facial expressions. And by allowing your child to watch the video many times, they can pick up a lot of clues to reading the feelings expressed by a person's mannerisms, gestures and facial expressions.
- For adults with Asperger's syndrome, try to expose yourself to different social opportunities. Also consider therapy to try to help you work through these issues.