Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Empathy, Social Skills and the Autism Spectrum

I read a great article a while back, written by Zosia Zaks, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder and writes extensively. You can check out her website at but this article was published on the GRASP website at  The article is “Myth: Autistic People Lack Empathy” I’m not sure when it was originally written, or where it was first published, and many people have commented on it at various places online. I’m adding my comments on it because the article raises some important, thought provoking issues.

I write this blog mainly for parents of kids with Asperger’s or autism who are trying to help their child with social skills, and more importantly, to help their child develop good relationships. It’s important to remember these basic goals when working with anyone, because the point isn’t to change someone or to define one way as right or preferred. Social skills are useful to help people interact with each other, understand others and to be understood, and at the core, to help us all feel connected to each other. For parents of kids on the autistic spectrum, understanding your child’s world can really help in knowing how to teach them social skills, and that’s why I like this article so much.

Zosia Zak’s article discusses two important topics. First is an exploration of the difference between empathy and the ability to follow the rules of social skills. She asks the question of whether or not she is lacking in empathy, or instead is missing  “the social and linguistic skills to navigate an alien social world successfully.” She describes in detail several experiences where she misses the point of a conversation and the resulting interpersonal disconnect. She clearly states her intentions: “I deeply wanted to get along with my co-workers and I wanted to be friends too!” For parents working with their children, it’s important to keep this distinction in mind. Social skills, reading others’ messages, sending the right signals, all these are important, but they’re basically the mechanics behind relationships, and completely different than your child’s feelings, intentions and desires for interaction.

I think it’s important to return to the source here, which would be the DSM IV-TR™. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2000. Officially, it’s the book that lists the symptoms of Autism and Asperger’s, or any other mental disorder.) What’s clear from the DSM is that a diagnosis of Autism or Asperger’s requires an impairment in social interaction, such as nonverbal behaviors, social isolation or even lack of awareness of others. There’s nothing listed about lack of empathy or caring.

There’s also an interesting variation of this discussion on ( where someone named Amik asks if neurotypicals lack empathy toward people on the autism spectrum.

The second area of interest in Zosia Zak’s article is her discussion of how she tried to set up a series of rules to use in future interactions. I thought of children in social skills groups, and how often they are presented with a list of rules on how to interact. This article vividly illustrates the experience of fitting an everyday interaction to a list of rules, and how difficult and exhausting it can be. I think it’s something for therapists and parents to keep in mind when trying to teach kids about social skills.

Please check out this article, and I’d love to hear your comments on it.