Can empathy be facilitated in children with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder?

23 Oct

In the United Kingdom just over one percent of the population is thought to be on the Autistic Spectrum (The National Autistic Society, 2013). Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) commonly demonstrate deficits in three main areas, known as the triad of impairments (Wing & Potter, 2002). These are language and communication, flexibility of thought and imagination, and social and emotional understanding (Wing & Potter, 2002). From a young age, children with ASD respond differently to others emotions than typically developing children do (Beall, Moody, McIntosh, Hepburn and Reed, 2008). This is shown by a lack of empathy (Baron-Cohen, Golan & Ashwin, 2009), defined by an inability to mentally place themselves in another’s position, identify with their emotional state (Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985), or react to it (Baron-Cohen, Golan & Ashwin, 2009). Currently, ASD is an incurable condition (The National Autistic Society, 2013) that compromises the quality of life of sufferers (Lee, Harrington, Louie & Newschaffer, 2008). If empathy in children with ASD were to be increased, it would greatly aid their communication with others.

Harris (1989) claimed that this lack of emotional understanding is not due to an impaired perception of others mental states, but rather the inability to simulate or imagine emotions. To support this, children with ASD can recognize emotions in others faces when they are asked to look for an emotion (Begeer, Rieffe, Terwogt & Stockmann, 2006). However, it was found that the child could not recognize expressions without being asked to look for a specific emotion (Begeer, Rieffe, Terwogt & Stockmann, 2006). This highlights potential problems in applying the teaching of emotions to real world situations.

Many technological interventions for children with ASD have been studied (Goldsmith & LeBlanc, 2004). It has been found that humanoid avatars can be successful in helping children with ASD to identify emotions (Moore, Cheng, McGrath & Powell, 2005). The use of humanoid robots has also been proved to be successful in not only to identifying emotions, but also to social interaction skills, such as turn taking (Robins, Dautenhahn, Boekhorst & Billard, 2010). Other teaching methods that have been found effective in increasing recognition and prediction of others emotional responses are the use of computer programs (Silver & Oakes, 2001) and videotapes (Bernad-Ripoll, 2007).

An animated DVD series called The Transporters has been specially developed, with the aim to help children recognize emotions (The Transporters, 2013). Research into the effects of this program have shown that in four weeks of watching 15 minutes at least three times a week, children with ASD performed as well on tasks relating to emotion than typically developing children who had not watched the animations (Golan et al, 2010). Alongside this, the parents of the children with ASD reported their children to have a higher interest in facial expressions, be more willing to discuss emotions and have change in their behavior and ability to interact with others (Golan et al, 2010). These parental reported effects indicate that the teaching of emotions may be applicable to real life, although they may have been subjective and possibly influenced by the parents increased awareness of their child’s emotional knowledge.

Although results from research appear to be promising in terms of teaching children with ASD emotions, methods used to collect the data, such as using emotional situations and expressions in cartoons, photographs and stories (Silver & Oakes, 2001), question how applicable the results will be to real life situations.  To support this, research suggests that whilst children with ASD can be taught to pass tasks that assess emotion and belief understanding, the teaching effects were not generalisable to other areas in which the children had not been previously taught (Hadwin, Baron-Cohen, Howlin & Hill, 1996). This indicates that the passing of tasks is due to the rules that the children have been taught, rather than understanding the concept of emotion. Whilst it does seem possible to teach emotions to children with autism, it does not seem that they completely understand these emotions at a level to apply them to real life situations.


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Wing, L., & Potter, D. (2002). The epidemiology of autistic spectrum disorders: Is the prevalence rising? Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 8(3), 151–161. doi: 10.1002/mrdd.10029




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