Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Kids on the Autism Spectrum & Lack of Demonstrated Empathy

“My son with high function autism is almost completely heartless when it comes to dealings with his younger sister. He’s rude and mean and sometimes aggressive with her. Is it common for a child with this disorder to have no empathy? Will this aggression become more violent over time?”

The lack of “demonstrated empathy” is possibly the most dysfunctional aspect of Aspergers (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). But I do use the term “demonstrated empathy” for a very important reason, and I want to be very clear about this: It’s not that these children have no empathy – they do. Rather, they often “give the impression” that they do not care about others. However, this is due to their “mind-blindness” and “sensory sensitivity” issues, and has little to do with their ability or willingness to have feelings for others.

Kids with an autism spectrum disorder experience difficulties in basic elements of social interaction, which may include the following:
  • lack of social or emotional reciprocity
  • impaired nonverbal behaviors (e.g., eye contact, facial expression, posture, gesture)
  • failure to seek shared enjoyments or achievements with others (e.g., showing others objects of interest)
  • failure to develop friendships

Unlike those with Autism, youngsters with AS or HFA are not usually withdrawn around others. Instead, they approach others – even if awkwardly. For example, a child on the spectrum may engage in a one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic, while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener's feelings or reactions (e.g., the need for privacy or haste to leave). This social awkwardness has been called "active but odd." This failure to react appropriately to social interaction may appear as disregard for other’s feelings, and may come across as insensitive.

The cognitive ability of kids with AS and HFA often allows them to articulate social norms in a laboratory context, where they may be able to show a theoretical understanding of other’s emotions; however, they typically have difficulty acting on this knowledge in fluid, real-life situations. Youngsters with the disorder may analyze and distill their observation of social interaction into rigid behavioral guidelines, and apply these rules in awkward ways (e.g., forced eye contact), resulting in a demeanor that appears rigid or socially naive. Also, childhood desire for companionship can become numbed through a history of failed social encounters.

RE: aggression. The hypothesis that children on the autism spectrum are predisposed to violent or criminal behavior has been investigated, but is not supported by data. More evidence suggests that kids with AS and HFA are victims rather than victimizers. One review found that an overwhelming number of reported violent criminals with Aspergers ALSO had coexisting psychiatric disorders (e.g., schizoaffective disorder).

In a nutshell, what you’re dealing with may have more to do with good old fashion sibling rivalry than it does your son’s inability to empathize with others. But, having mind-blindness and sensory sensitivities does not give him a license to be aggressive with his sister. Aggressive behavior should be disciplined regardless of any autism-related deficits.



Anonymous said...   Aggression IS a norm in a lot of them, especially with younger siblings in the home. Do your research.
Anonymous said...   All AS kids are different and struggle with different things. My son has trouble expressing his frustration verbally before it becomes an explosion and in turn is sometimes aggressive with his little brother. Younger siblings can be annoying even to NT kids. According to him: They hover and make a lot of noise. They interrupt your focus or don't follow all the rules. Sometimes they are hard to understand, or don't make sense or they whine and the noise hurts you. They knock down the tower you have been building for 45 minutes and just got all the details perfect on. Just watch carefully and intervene early when you can see that your son is becoming overwhelmed. Remove the little one and let your older one have a break from him. Then when he has calmed down he will be more willing to understand his siblings' feelings.
Anonymous said...   ASD just makes our job harder. My daughter is 11 & we have overcome alot, making alot of mistakes, but we've come far! I cant fix everything, but i can keep trying. Every day.
Anonymous said...   Children have empathy, whether you see it or not. This is an area I have followed for awhile. Please don't make the mastake to underestimate a "soul".
Anonymous said...   Empathy can be an emotion that is not easily understood by asd. All asd kids r different. This is ur child. U r the expert on ur child, even tho asd is involved!
Anonymous said...   I found that our situation improved when I took them to a family counselor together. It was mostly from anxiety over my younger son's unpredictable but completely normal behavior! Aspie kids have difficulty when they deal with unpredictable elements and unfortunately that is exactly what kids are! It got better for my family.
Anonymous said...   I know this is hard my 8 yr old is verbally and physically abusive to me and his sister. We have done a couple of anger management courses and found these to help. I don't know that they learn empathy but they do learn to better control their emotions. My husband aspie and he not empathetic ever, but he does understand others emotions and try's to understand why they feel that way.
Anonymous said...   I think all young kids are prone to aggressive behavior under the right circumstances. It's just more challenging to correct in a child who has other issues. Like the article said, it probably had more to do with sibling rivalry than Aspergers and Aspergers kids are usually the victims and not the perpetrators of aggressive acts.
Anonymous said...   I think this must be very common. We have the same problem.
Anonymous said...   if this concerns u now, find a way 2deal w/this behavior. Find a way 2teach him empathy. He may not be able 2regonize it on his own right now & later may not know its worth until 2late. Its there, dont stop until u find away 2help him! Thats our job as parents!
Anonymous said...   if ur mothers heart tells u 2b worried about his aggression & lack of empathy, listen 2ur mother's heart! U can find a way 2help him & ur daughter!
Anonymous said...   It could be just sibling rivalry for a typical child, but take the ones who also have 3 or 4 comorbidities along with the fact that they lack social abilities and the fact that the higher functioning they are the less services there are, and so aggression can be common.
Anonymous said...   Its nice to read these articles I can forget that he has aspergers and can't always control himself, these are great reminders. Helps me keep my patience in tack! 
Anonymous said...   My 11 yr old asperger's son IS often verbally abusive and sometimes extremely physically abusive to his 7 year old sister. He can also be quite thoughtful and sweet. The diagnosis doesn't create the behavior, it just makes it difficult to develop BEYOND the 3 yr old emotional reactivity. Impulse control is the issue when it comes to physical aggression and that can be mediated with cognitive behavioral therapy AND/OR medication. You must protect siblings from growing up thinking abusive behavior is the norm at the same time, making the ASD child understand the circumstances surrounding out of control behavior i.e. hospitalization or later, incarceration. WE DON'T HIT in our society and have the freedom to walk the streets.
Anonymous said...   My son is aggressive but ever since we started a level chart that the behavior therapist gave us for all the kids it has been much easier. There is zero tolerance for aggression. It creates a environment of fairness. Training any kid, especially asperger is so important for safety and sanity of the family.
Anonymous said...   My son is four years old. The professionals tell us he has Aspergers Syndrome and ADHD. He hits other children without warning or provocation, and goes from "nice kid" to "demon" in five seconds. I've been hit in the face, head-butted, and yesterday he threw an IPAD at me. While he's quite intelligent and has easily mastered electronic games and tasks geared towards 7-10 year-olds, he has very little desire to be social and gets very violent when we try to transition him from one activity to another. The aggression aspect is very difficult to handle, especially when it's my own child beating on me for no reason. To quote a very old saying "It ain't easy sometimes."
Anonymous said...   My son was diagnosed with borderline aspies and ADHD. He has his good days and bad days like most and he and his sister can be best friends one minute and the next he is screaming at her for touching his legos. I think it is important to talk to the other siblings about their aspergers sibling's condition so that they too can learn to adapt and be aware of what can possibly trigger aggression.
Anonymous said...   Some days i have 2remind her the steps 2brush her teeth, but when she is able 2express in words that shes frustrated when i remind her, i smile thru my frustration. It has been a hard road helping her know her emotions. But we keep going!
Anonymous said...   Thanks for this article, my son is 11 with a 6 yr. old sister, I know he loves her, but he is harsh to her at times, very insightful!
Anonymous said...   The article doesn't say at all that aggression is normal in Asperger's kids. Being quick to fight without reading what you're arguing against
Anonymous said...   we all have different experianece,its good to share but not to put others in same position down,to jennifer if we cant be honest with other mums who can we be honest with,if your child is not agressive thats so lovely ,but some of us,have more taqn one on spectrum,i have one daughter who is very passive aspergers and one who from day one was violent,in fact the quiet one left home early as she could take no more,i also work with asdults on the spectrum too and yes some,not all ,can be very violent,i think its good to share and no way will cover up or lie,us mums feel guilty enough,
Anonymous said...  My daughter is high functioning aspergers also and her sister is 5 years younger then her and she got very aggressive with her and very rude and hurtful the older she got. She had to go into residential for a while to learn how to handle being in the same house with her. It is still challenging but tolerable.
Anonymous said...  We have an 11 yo hf as child. He is also high anxiety. He was aggressive when younger but now is more likely to argue. He has five younger sibs and one older.
•    Anonymous said...  Perhaps Nicole is not dealing with aggression as of yet. To me, the question was an honest description of problematic behaviors for which the parent is seeking help. After all, this "IS" the "Parenting Aspergers Children - Support Group". We shouldn't have to tip-toe around what we are trying to ask.
•    Anonymous said... Having ABA Therapy in the home when mine was 12 definitely helped correct a lot of behaviors . He was the same to his 3 year old brother. Getting better as he gets older. He knows that he will have a consequence. But he still doesn't understand that he can hurt him when they wrestle. So cant be trusted unsupervised.. yet.. but we are working on it.. Its been hard for a couple years.. they Both antagonize each other
•    Anonymous said... I feel like the description of this lil boy was delivered without any Empathy or Sensitivity.
•    Anonymous said... I find the lack of empathy to be hardest as well... I find myself saying that if he only had empathy, so much of his other behaviors would work themselves out... The best I can do is constantly work on how his actions affect others. Any little step forward is a huge accomplishment, as you all know
•    Anonymous said... I have to disagree with the posted info. This question addresses an issue my child has. He has the ability to demonstrate empathy for other children but he does have definite issues with his sibling. Do you have any advice for that particular instance?
•    Anonymous said... I used to think of it as no empathy also but have discovered, in my daughters case, it is two things : one is honesty and just stating facts. She feels it is in a way kinder to tell the facts or truth as she sees it. Second, she is empathic to a point that is actually painful for her so she has learned to tune it out and rely on the first scenario. She is learning, through therapy and simply age and maturity, to filter some.
•    Anonymous said... I would have thought this was one place we could talk about our kids bluntly ...and without judgement.
•    Anonymous said... My 8 year old shows a great deal of empathy after we adopted a death row kitty. He chose the cat and saw the conditions the cat was living in. Its been a roller coaster because the cat had so many health issues... $1200 later, hes a fine kitty! We went through all this when my son was 5. He even saw a poster at school of a "sad cat" face and he broke into tears. Perhaps there is something about kids and pets that really can help them learn empathy. Now, he breaks into panic mode if another child desperately needs to find a bathroom! Weve just about come full circle in some areas.
•    Anonymous said... My almost 10 year old didn't really have any empathy until he was about 8 years old. Now he has only limited empathy and doesn't show any of it towards his younger brother. He loves his sisters but there is just something about his brother that aggravates him. We are working with him on things like when his brother has a headache he will tell him there's no way it can be that bad and ask me how I don't know his brother isn't just lieing to me. It's an ongoing work in progress.
•    Anonymous said... My daughter also has HFA and is exactly the same, this is the thing I find the hardest x
•    Anonymous said... My eight year old boy is the same with his sister our OT , therapy thinks its an control issue with our boy because he feels like he has no control in his life.We thought it was her voice because she is very loud and he has sensory issues witch i think plays a big part of why he treats her so bad. Its heartbreaking for the whole family and i see the hurt in her eyes when all she wants is her brother to be her brother. What is slowly helping my boy is his OT deep pressure therapy so i have learnt how to do it with him to calm him and he all so uses his sock when his at that point with her. Every child's different so i hope you find what works for you good luck xx
•    Anonymous said... My son is high functioning and is exactly the opposite, he is much kinder to his twin sister than she is to him! He shows lots of empathy towards others that he knows, each kid is unique.
•    Anonymous said... My son is now 17. His empathy toward others has improved a lot as he's got older. We also have dogs that he loves and cares for. I think that may have helped?
•    Anonymous said... My son with HFA only seems to show his aggression to his youngest brother is not easy and certainly stressful at times. Actually one of my biggest fears is him hurting him because he can't control himself in the raging moment. I can never leave the two unsupervised whereas his other brother that is closest in age ...he shows no aggression to. Interestingly enough he shows the greatest empathy for his grandparents.
•    Anonymous said... my son, who is now 18, when he was younger only showed his aggression towards his younger brother but as he got older he turned it on all of the rest of us but once past puberty it all calmed down again.
•    Anonymous said... My thoughts on the questions are...1) To truly have empathy, one must be able to see things from another person's perspective. This is a common challenge for those with ASD...part of the "Theory of Mind" that we read about, I believe. Over a period of time, many of our ASD children can be specifically taught to recognize the feelings of others and hopefully respond in socially appropriate ways. 2) There is no way to know if someone's aggression will become more violent over time or not. There are SO many different factors that could be contributing to the aggressive behaviors. For my 12-year old son with Autism, his aggression is mostly caused by frustration, impulsivity, and what I now know to be adrenaline system over-reactivity.
•    Anonymous said...Yes it is. He needs to be taught empathy
•    Anonymous said... Daily issue here too. I pray it gets easier but not for me...for my child and her siblings!!
•    Anonymous said... ditto here... not able to care about anyone
•    Anonymous said... Ditto, same in our house, with 12yo Aspie son and 6yo son...
•    Anonymous said... I hear you all.....I have a 10 yr old boy ASD and 5 yr old girl, the fights! He has groomed her to behave similar to him and as a result if he is melting down she pokes the bear! Not only is it hard work but it drives me to absolute despair. The only advice we have been given is to keep them seperated or supervised at all times......ain't nobody got time for that frown emoticon
•    Anonymous said... It gets better. Give it time.
•    Anonymous said... My son 14 seems to have no love for his younger brother...I'm trying very hard to resolve this
•    Anonymous said... Same here, it's a daily struggle!!
•    Anonymous said... Same here. My 9,5 aspie and a boy age 7 and a boy age 5.they have a very strong bond but my aspie seem to block everything when he's feeling upset in some way. Hitting and screeming every day! Pretty frustrating...
•    Anonymous said... The violence should go down as your son matures.

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