Autism & Empathy

Updated: Oct 23

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. In other words, it is the ability to understand the other person’s situation and how they might feel as a result. We take this ability for granted but it is in fact quite a complex skill.


Let’s look at the picture. How do you think the boy feels? Why do you think they feel that way? How can you tell he feels that way? You are probably able to recognise the boy’s emotion very easily. He is sad. You probably know what you could say to reassure or comfort him. You also know that making a comment such as "You should not ride your bike!" would not be the right thing to say.


In order to empathise with another person, we first need be able to recognise emotions. Most people can easily tell when another person is sad, disappointed, anxious etc. We generally recognise emotions by reading facial expressions and body language. We glean an insight into how the other person feels by listening to their tone of voice and we also pick up additional clues from the context or environment.


Emotional recognition will often lead to the person saying something re-assuring or offering a comforting gesture if the other person is sad, disappointed or anxious. In other words, they will usually say something that would be considered socially appropriate. We normally intuitively know what to say to the other person or at the very least what would be considered appropriate.


Emotion recognition and empathy are essential for establishing an emotional connection and building relationships with others. However, many people who have had a traumatic brain injury have difficulty recognising emotions and empathising with others. Many individuals with autism also share this difficulty. This can have a profoundly negative impact on social relationships.


In a recent study by Neumann & Zupan (2019), it was noted that while some people who have had a traumatic brain injury may be able to accurately identify another person's emotion, this does not automatically lead to them responding in a way that shows empathy. The authors therefore advise that clinicians who are training emotion recognition after traumatic brain injury, should also discuss ways of responding appropriately with the patient. Further research (Neumann et al 2017) has found that the combination of training emotion recognition and also discussing ways the person can respond empathically to others is effective.


Did you know that the Empathy Pics app can be used to train emotion recognition and to discuss possible ways of responding empathically in different situations?

Empathy Pics is an interactive app with over 100 high-quality photos, depicting real-life scenarios. It trains the ability to recognise emotions, helps improve the person's ability to see things from another person's perspective and facilitates the teaching of how to make comments that show empathy.


Training emotion recognition and the ability to make comments that show empathy takes time. The good news is that individuals who have had a traumatic brain injury and people with autism can certainly make gains using a combined approach.

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