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 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Unlike those with Autism level 3, youngsters with Autism level 1 (HFA) are not usually withdrawn around others.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 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 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.
Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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