Children with autism spectrum disorder are empathic

Children with autism spectrum disorder are able to empathise with others. However, they can be quickly overwhelmed by other people's emotions, which may make them more aggressive. These are the newest insights from research by developmental psychologist Carolien Rieffe and her colleagues.

Empathy in children with ASD?

People need empathy in order to work together with others, or to be part of a group; in short, empathy is a requirement for social cohesion. For a long time, children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder were thought to feel little or no empathy, Carolien Rieffe explains. Her research group studies the social and emotional development of children with ASD, together with the Centre for Autism and the Leo Kannerhuis, a specialist treatment centre for young people suffering from autism. ‘It now appears that children and adolescents with ASD are aware of another person's sadness, but they don't know how to handle it. Experiencing empathy can even make them more aggressive,' comments Rieffe. 'They are overwhelmed by other people's emotions.'


Ignoring other people's emotions

Rieffe's research team recently made these discoveries in a longitudinal study where children and adolescents were monitored over a number of years. The study showed there was a causal relationship between experiencing empathy and feeling aggression. Children and adolescents with ASD who feel the emotions of other people more strongly appear to demonstrate more aggressive behaviour over time. 'This makes it important that they first learn better how to regulate their own emotions, before they start to pay attention to the emotions of others,' is Rieffe's advice. 'This also explains why we often see that they ignore or try to ignore other people's emotions.'

Insight into the intentions of others

A further important aspect of social cohesion is having insight into the intentions of other people. Rieffe found that two- to six-year olds with ASD lack awareness of the intentions of others in situations where joint attention is called for. For example, in a test environment, if the person conducting the experiment points to something, children with ASD often fail to follow her gaze and outstretched arm. They are unable to grasp what the experimenter wants from them. However, when the experimenter uses specific physical objects, the children are able to follow her actions and do whatever is required. 'Children with ASD can focus their attention on what another person has in mind, but only if they can actually see the object of the attention,' according to Rieffe. 

Autism Week

From 28 March to 4 April was Autism Week. Information is processed differently in the brains of people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. This inherited disorder appears in different forms, such as classic autism and Asperger's syndrome. Around 1 per cent of the Dutch population have ASD. In many cases, autism is not diagnosed until after the age of two.

(31 March 2015)

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Last Modified: 07-04-2015