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Empathy or Sympathy From Kids with Autism

I discussed the word, “appropriate” in my IEP blogs. This time I’m using that word differently. I’m discussing it as it relates to something our kids struggle with – empathy and sympathy.

Empathy and sympathy are difficult for our kids to learn. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that they’re autism-related diagnosis interferes with their “natural” ability to understand these concepts. Empathy and sympathy are simply tough for them to understand.

It’s not, however, as if they can’t learn empathy or sympathy. They simply do not possess a quicker learning curve than “typicals.” They’re more confused by how to react to situations or they’re simply not paying attention because of an obsession, for example. It’s my understanding that there’s a disconnect inside the brain of a person with autism that they have to overcome. They have to be taught some things that come more naturally to others.

What are some of these autism-related responses like?

Well, my child is beginning to understand empathy and sympathy bur he does still laugh when he sees someone trip or get hurt. He laughs when I get hurt.

What do I do?

I point it out to him. “Hey, you know, I hit my elbow and it hurts me. And, you’re smiling at me.”

How does he typically respond?

He very quickly (and quite hilariously) tries to rid himself of his smile. He makes these “I’m trying not to smile” faces. They, of course, make me smile because they’re doggone cute.

I shouldn’t smile, though. I try to hide it. I should keep a straight face to make sure he understands that this is a serious topic.

One problem I’ve discovered with my son is he often doesn’t even realize he’s smiling. He’ll sometimes tell me, “Mommy, I didn’t know I was smiling.”

Here’s another example: Recently, he kicked up his foot from the backseat and bonked me in the head. I said, “Ouch,” in an exaggerated voice. I wasn’t really hurt but I needed to point out something he hadn’t noticed.

Appropriately, he said, “I’m sorry, Mommy.”

I said, “Okay, thank you for telling me.”

And that was our very appropriate exchange. So he’s learning.

What else can you do to help your child?


Whenever a baby is crying, I try to point it out to my child. I’ll say, “What do you hear?” By asking this question I’m trying to get my child out of his own head and get him to listen to something happening in his surroundings.

He will typically acknowledge the crying.  Then I’ll add, “How do you think that baby feels?”

“Sad,” he usually says.

Of course, the baby or other child may have other issues going on but I’m trying to work with what I have. It’s a teaching moment for me and I try not to let too many of those pass by.

Because I think it’s important, I’ll make sure that when we’re listening to a baby cry or to another child who has gotten hurt that neither of us is laughing or smiling.

I’m trying to teach empathy and sympathy.

What else can I do to help my child learn how to respond appropriately?

I also work on teasing.

I’ve been working on teasing for quite a while. I’ve been attempting to get my child to first recognize teasing than react appropriately.

Just a few days ago he asked me to explain “mean teasing.” I loved his question and explained how mommy and daddy “gently” tease. But other people do it for it to hurtful.

I want him to understand the difference. He’s going to have to learn how to respond to both kinds, and respond appropriately. Smiling may not be the best response!

Can our kids learn empathy or sympathy? Absolutely.

It is, however, one of those things that takes time. It also takes teaching moments and practice and experience. More so than with typical children. If you understand that, then you’ll do fine.

I empathize with parents who have similar challenges with their kids. I love discussing autism-related problems with other autism parents because we “get” each other.

Which is why I write. I want to pass on as much of my learning and experience as possible. I know how tough it is. I empathize for all of you!

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