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Myth: Autistic People Lack Empathy

Katherine Johnson. M.S., BCBA
Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Note: This article is about a form of ableism that affects one part of the autistic community: autistic people who are proficient verbal communicators. Those who communicate with AAC devices, typing, sign, or who don’t yet have the communication skills to engage with the wider world face other forms of ableism and discrimination not described in this article. 

The Double Empathy Problem

Remember the game “telephone”? One person whispers a message to another, that person whispers to the next, and on down the line until the last person announces the message so everyone can laugh at how many times the original sentence has been distorted. 

Using a variation of this exercise, a study looked at how a message fared if the string of people in the telephone line were all autistic, all neurotypical, or a mix of both. It turns out that the rate at which the message degraded among the verbal autistic people was no greater than that of the neurotypical people.  It was only when the message was sent through a mix of autistic and neurotypical people that the meaning deteriorated significantly faster. 

What does this tell us? 

If effective social communication was objectively deficient (not just different) in verbal autistic people, we would expect that the all-autistic string of people would produce the worst decline in messages in the study; that wasn’t the finding. Instead, the autistic people received and passed along messages amongst themselves just as well as the neurotypical people. The faulty communication resulted not from the autistic participants but from the mismatch between autistic and neurotypical communication.  

This small study illustrates a theory by Dr. Damian Milton that he calls the “double empathy problem.” Challenging the assumption that neurotypical people have social skills that autistic people simply lack, he posits that the disconnects between autistic and non-autistic people are not the result of a one-sided skill deficit; they are instead a mismatch of neurotypes.

Reframing

This is a dramatic reframing of the common belief about these communication breakdowns, which placed the fault squarely on the social skill profile of the autistic folks. The “empathy” part of the theory’s name refers to the widely-held idea that autistic people lack empathy, when the theory would suggest that autistic empathy is simply expressed differently. Slowly but surely, researchers are beginning to look at that other side of the coin: how the social skill profiles of neurotypical people might also undermine relationships.   

For years, research has demonstrated that autistic people have difficulty interpreting facial expressions; a 2016 study finally looked at the reverse. They asked neurotypical people to interpret facial expressions of autistic folks – and they were unable to do it. The results of a series of studies in 2017 suggest that one reason people of different neurotypes have difficulty connecting is because neurotypical people form negative first impressions of autistic people (based upon appearance, not conversational skills), and subsequently avoid them. This indicates that some of the social isolation that autistic people face is due to ableism and discrimination.  

Missing Out

The difficulties autistic and non-autistic people have connecting negatively impact both sides. Since autistic people are in the minority, disconnection from the neurotypical portion of their community can increase their feelings of loneliness and isolation. For its part, the neurotypical world is missing out on the unique, often innovative, autistic perspective. 

Autistic people who have had huge cultural impacts on our society (environmental activist Greta Thunberg, actor Dan Akroyd, and Pokemon creator Santoshi Tajiri, to name a few) have had success in spite of a society that is largely unsupportive of and, at times, openly hostile to, the social profile of autistic folks. Imagine what brilliance we miss out on when autistic people are looked over, avoided, not hired, etc.  

Even those who are not destined to become one of the famous few mentioned above have a perspective that can deeply impact those around them. Autistic people see the world from different angles, which can be an advantage in everyday problem-solving. They generally have a strong sense of justice, an unwillingness to be cowed by hierarchy, and a drive for honesty, sincerity, and specificity, all beneficial qualities in social relationships and the workplace.

Expanding Neurotypical Empathy

The solution to the separation between people of different neurotypes has largely been to teach autistic people how to understand the rest of the world better. But by considering the double-empathy problem, we can see that this is only part of the issue. The other part is that non-autistic people also have skill deficits: interpreting and interacting with autistic people. 

Just as history is written by the winners, social norms are written by the majority. If we want to work toward a future where people of all neurotypes better understand one another, we must listen to the experiences of the minority. It’s important to recognize that neurotypical “social norms” exist because they’re most common, not because they are inherently superior. These dominant “social norms” directly result from how neurotypical people think, behave, and process the world. 

“Empathy” is about understanding another person’s experience. Ironically, to succeed in our society, autistic people must display empathy nearly constantly: decoding others’ unwritten rules and learning to approach the world in a way that works for others. To bridge the divide, nurture the gifts of the autistic people in our society, and for everyone to benefit from the valuable perspectives of the neurodivergent, those with neurotypical brains must follow this example. By challenging themselves to work toward understanding and adapting to the way autistic people see and experience the world, neurotypical folks can open themselves up to new friends with an intense devotion to honesty. Employers will find innovative autistic employees with rare specializations and a knack for accuracy. And society will benefit from recognizing and celebrating the valuable and previously underappreciated gifts of the autistic mind. 

Damian E.M. Milton (2012) On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’, Disability & Society, 27:6, 883-887, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2012.710008

Sheppard, E., Pillai, D., Wong, G.TL. et al. How Easy is it to Read the Minds of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder?. J Autism Dev Disord 46, 1247–1254 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2662-8

Sasson, N., Faso, D., Nugent, J. et al. Neurotypical Peers are Less Willing to Interact with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judgments. Sci Rep 7, 40700 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep40700

A Closer Look at The BHCOE

Dr. Ellie Kazemi is the Chief Science Officer at Behavioral Health Center of Excellence (BHCOE), an accrediting organization focused on improving the quality of behavior analytic services. She is also a professor at CSUN, where she founded the M.S. in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program. Dr. Kazemi joins us to share about the accreditation process and the importance of assessments and measuring outcomes in the field of ABA. As Dr. Kazemi discusses the value of connecting the perspectives of the families and the clients, and shares, “To measure outcomes you should see progress from different perspectives”. 

For More Information: 

https://www.bhcoe.org/

All Autism Talk is sponsored by Learn Behavioral.

7 Tips for Snow Day Fun

By Karen Callahan

While no one can argue with the fun of traditional activities, such as building snowmen or snow angels, keeping your kiddo occupied throughout an entire snow day while confined to your house might require a few more tricks up your sleeve.

Consider the unique opportunities the snow can provide for you and your kiddo to explore different language concepts, social skills, academic tasks, and leisure activities. Think about bringing what winter has to offer indoors, where it is warm, for a unique way to learn and play together.

To get started, grab a few safe bowls (think plastic Tupperware), some pots, a muffin tin, and a few spoons of different sizes. Fill one bowl with cold water and another with hot water. Throw a big beach towel on the floor and grab some of that white, powdery stuff! Here are seven tips for snow day fun.

  1. Let your child explore, figure out what they like about the activity, and add to what they find fun. If they’re watching you and waiting for what you will do next, you’ve got it right!

  2. In the beginning, don’t demand your child’s attention. Show them some fun ways to play with the snow and “kitchen stuff” and talk about what is happening. “Wow, you smashed the snow!” “Did you see it melt in the hot water?” “You got more snow!” “Stir, stir, stir, good job stirring!”

  3. Language Concepts: Once you’ve got the activity going, use the snow to start talking about fun, related language concepts like hot/cold, wet/dry, and melting/frozen.

  4. Social Skills: Take turns using the spoons, stirring, and playing. Encourage and model social skills by commenting about the activity and what you or your child enjoy. “Watch it melt!” “Wow, that is cold!” “I like playing in the snow!”

  5. Academic Tasks: Discuss weather, precipitation, seasons, and states of matter (solid, liquid, gas). Use your muffin tin and practice counting as you fill each cup.

  6. Leisure Skills: Feel free to step away from the activity and let your child dig in on their own. Sustaining a play activity and incorporating newly learned play skills modeled by an adult play a crucial role in learning.

  7. Be sure to set boundaries about where the snow must stay. We suggest prompting all snow activity back to the area of the beach towel.

Most importantly, have fun and enjoy this new experience!

Trellis Opens New Learning Center in Forest Hill, MD

With over 20 years of experience providing compassionate, contemporary ABA therapy to children with autism, we’re delighted to share that we opened a new Trellis Learning Center this fall in Forest Hill, Maryland. The new center held an open house that included an official ribbon-cutting with their local Chamber of Commerce and opportunities for families to tour the facility, speak with the leadership team, and participate in fun activities. This new location offers a supportive, learning-rich environment where children with autism can work on individual skills in a group setting.

We couldn’t be more excited to support more families in the communities we serve. To learn more about where our services are located, find a location.

8 Tips for Planning for a Successful Holiday for Your Autistic Child

The holidays are an exciting time as we share traditions, spend time with family, and navigate the different gatherings and celebrations. Holiday spirit can also bring holiday stress. We want to help you and your family have the most successful (and least stressful) season by offering our best practices and tips.

BEFORE THE HOLIDAYS

Start with Expectations

Having a positive and realistic mindset about what you want to create can make a big difference. What could go right this season? Keep an optimistic view of the possibilities for special moments you want to share. A winning holiday doesn’t have to mean extravagant plans. Consider what would be ideal, be prepared to accept when flexibility is needed, and look for the wins along the way.

Consider Comfort and Safety Needs

When visiting events or other homes, bring items you know will bring comfort for your child—things like earplugs (or headphones), fidgets, and soft clothes. When traveling, ask for needed accommodations from your airline and hotel. Make sure you are aware of possible water nearby and review crisis plans with loved ones.

Practice Before Events

Now is a great time to discuss upcoming changes to schedules and routines. Involve your child in the process whenever possible. Playing memory games with photos of those you will see this holiday season allows your child to identify matching names and faces. Establish a phrase or code word with your child to practice using when they need to take a break from events to calm down and relax.

DURING THE HOLIDAYS

Maintain Routines

During the holidays, change is inevitable but find ways to create or maintain routines for your child. What are things you can build into every day? Perhaps it’s something you do together each morning, afternoon, and evening (regardless of location). Utilizing visual supports like calendars and independent activity schedules can be helpful too.

Build in Fun!

Whether days are filled with errands or time at home, consider letting your child choose a couple of activities each morning for the day ahead. Here are some suggestions that might work for your family:

  • Bake something together
  • Do holiday arts and crafts
  • Take a drive to see holiday lights in your neighborhood, zoo, or garden
  • Help with decorations or gift wrapping
  • Sing along with holiday music

Consider Sensory Needs

Holiday meals can be tricky for some. Plan ahead for alternative foods that you know your child will eat. As we mentioned earlier, being mindful of dressing in (or packing extra) comfortable clothing can be helpful. Preferred items, such as toys or other objects that help promote calm for your child, are a good idea too. Consider making a sensory box that includes things to stimulate your child’s touch/sight/sound/taste/smell. Finally, establish a quiet “break space” that your child can utilize when needed.

WRAPPING UP THE HOLIDAYS

Plan for Rest and Recovery

After each scheduled big event or outing, try to allow time for a quiet evening that follows. Start a list or document on your computer of things that went well that you want to repeat and ideas about what would make it easier next time.

Transition Back to School

Packing holiday decorations and unpacking clothes can be helpful signals to your child that things are moving back to the normal routine. Other visual cues like a countdown calendar for back to school can help prepare them. Show them when school starts and have them mark off the days. Leave extra time the first morning back to school so you can have a nice breakfast and move with ease into the day. If possible, organize a nice, calm activity after school and focus on what went well at the end of the day.

LEARN’s Kerry Hoops Uses Assent-Based Practice to Make COVID-19 Vaccination Comfortable for Kids with Autism

By: Katherine Johnson, M.S., BCBA

Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Vaccination visits can be terrifying for an autistic child – a new environment, unfamiliar sounds and smells, being touched by a stranger, and all of this culminating in a painful poke. Anxiety and unwillingness to sit for a vaccine shot can lead to parents and medical professionals winding up with a difficult decision: hold the child down against their will or forego the vaccine. At LEARN, we care about our clients’ health and the experience they have when receiving healthcare.

Recently, the Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP, a LEARN organization) partnered with the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin in a series of vaccine clinics. These events were carefully designed to provide families with autistic children a positive experience while receiving their COVID-19 vaccines.    

The clinics were held in a local children’s museum, and a pair of seasoned clinicians teamed up with each child, who had reviewed a vaccination social story before coming. Parents answered a questionnaire about their child’s experience with shots and specific interests in advance; clinicians used this information to build rapport with the child, make them comfortable, and provide distraction. Choice was built into the entire experience: children got to select toys, the type of bandage they received, and the body part where they would receive the shot. Clinicians also provided non-invasive devices to mitigate injection pain, like the Buzzy pain blocker, and shot blockers. The most intriguing part? Clinicians waited until the child indicated they were ready before giving them the vaccination.

The result was phenomenal: dozens of autistic children receiving their COVID-19 vaccine without a tear. Kerry Hoops, our Clinical Director at WEAP, said that one experience in particular stood out to her: a boy who was terrified that the shot would hurt, asking about it repeatedly. After assuring him they would not let the shot be a surprise, they spent some time doing one of his favorite activities: having races around the museum. They gave him the opportunity to watch his mother get the vaccine, and then took him to a sensory room in the facility where they watched wrestling (WWE) together. Getting him comfortable was a process that took nearly an hour, but the end result was a child who received his vaccine willingly, and left having had a positive experience.  “The coolest thing is seeing the parents’ responses,” said Hoops. “They were so happy because they were not expecting the vaccination experience to go as well as it did.”

The procedures Hoops and our other clinicians at LEARN used are all evidence-based practices commonly used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) called “antecedent interventions.” Frequently, interfering behaviors (like screaming or bolting from a doctor) occur because the child is trying to escape from something uncomfortable or scary. Antecedent interventions are meant to create an environment that the child doesn’t want to escape from. “We’re trying to create a positive experience so when they go in for their next vaccine, they’re not going to be afraid,” says Hoops.  

The most groundbreaking component of these vaccine clinics was it was not the medical professional who decided when it was time for the shot, nor was it the parent. It was the child. In addition to using antecedent interventions, our WEAP clinicians also had the medical professionals hold off on the procedure itself until the child had indicated they were willing to receive the vaccine – something known as “gaining assent.”  

Assent, having a pediatric patient agree to treatment, is a practice that has been required for medical research since 1977, citing the need to respect children as individuals. Since then, some practitioners have extended assent procedures to their regular pediatric practice, asking for the child’s permission before they listen to their heart, for instance. The new BACB ethics code includes a provision for “gaining assent when applicable,” and proponents argue that Assent-Based ABA prevents difficult behavior and teaches children critical self-advocacy skills. The ability to determine what is and is not comfortable and acceptable for oneself is particularly important for children who struggle to use language, or who are at higher risk of being misunderstood because they are autistic. At LEARN, Assent-Based Programming is one part of our overall Person-Centered ABA Initiative. 

Although Assent-Based practice doesn’t guarantee that every child will eventually agree to the procedure (2 children of the 73 children in the clinic did not assent to the vaccine), it was overwhelmingly successful. The impact was evident in the enthusiastic responses from parents afterward. One parent wrote, “Thank you for the BEST vaccination experience ever! Our family was overjoyed to have been part of this clinic.” 

LEARN is proud to announce that WEAP and ASGW are planning on expanding their vaccine clinics to regular children’s vaccines in the coming year. For more information, check out the ASGW’s website.

Kerry Hoops, MA, BCBA, is the clinical director for Wisconsin Early Autism Project’s Green Bay region. Kerry began her career helping children with autism over 20 years ago when she was attending UWGB for her bachelor’s in psychology and human development. She fell in love with the job and chose to work in the field of autism as her career. Kerry furthered her education at the Florida Institute of Technology and Ball State University with a master’s in applied behavior analysis and became a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). She loves helping children and families in Wisconsin and internationally in Malaysia. Kerry also works at the Greater Green Bay YMCA for the DREAM program, focusing on events for socialization for adults with special needs. She has been on the board of directors for the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin since 2014 and is the acting president.

LEARN more about LEARN’s Person-Centered ABA Initiative. And, to stay connected, join our newsletter.

Autism Spectrum Therapies (AST) Opens 5 New Learning Centers

With over 20 years of experience providing compassionate, contemporary ABA therapy to children with autism, we’re delighted to share that we opened five new AST Learning Centers this past summer and fall in Fresno and San Marcos, California; Goodyear, Arizona; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Clackamas, Oregon. Each new center held an open house that included an official ribbon-cutting with their local Chamber of Commerce and opportunities for families to tour the facility, speak with the leadership team, and participate in fun activities. These new locations offer a supportive, learning-rich environment where children with autism can work on individual skills in a group setting.  

We couldn’t be more excited to support more families in the communities we serve. To learn more about where our services are located, find a location.  

Five Tips for Selecting the Best Holiday Gifts for Kids with Autism

Buying the perfect gift for kids and other loved ones can be challenging, and this can also be true when buying gifts for kids with autism. To help make your gift-giving easier, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when purchasing gifts for autistic children.

Focus on what brings the person joy.

Research shows that incorporating interests and preferences into the learning and play environment of kids with autism can increase positive behaviors and aid in skill acquisition (1). With that said, we can capitalize on what someone already likes. For example, if a child likes dogs, shop for games, activities, or toys that are dog-related. If a child enjoys swimming, activities that involve water play may be a hit (e.g., water tables, sprinkler toys, water beads, grow capsules). Alternatively, if a child is sensitive to loud noises, a toy fire truck with a siren may not be appropriate. Ask friends and family of the person for whom you are buying the gift what that person generally likes and/or dislikes.

Focus on the person’s strengths and abilities.

Many toys come with age recommendations, and while these recommendations are helpful, they might not always lead you to the perfect gift. A good rule of thumb when purchasing a gift is to consider the age and the development of the person for whom you are buying a gift. For example, the game “Apples to Apples” would not be developmentally appropriate for a non-verbal teen, even if it is an age-appropriate game. When looking for the right gift, focus on the person’s strengths. For instance, if the non-verbal teen mentioned above is great at drawing, then a sketch pad or an adult coloring book could be a more appropriate gift. If you are unsure about the child or teen’s strengths, ask a friend or family member of the person for whom you are buying the gift about their specialty areas and abilities.

Note: Be sensitive to how family and friends of a child and teen with autism may feel when being asked questions about the skills of their loved one. When asking questions, always frame them from the perspective of accomplishment (e.g., what skills have they mastered) and not deficit (e.g., in what areas are they delayed) to be supportive and respectful of their growth and development.

Be mindful of behavior triggers and safety risks.

Some children with autism engage in behaviors that put them or their loved ones at risk of harm. For example, if a child engages in pica (e.g., eating nonfood items), gifts containing small objects may pose as a choking hazard. Another example is if a child engages in aggression towards others, gifts with violent content may not be appropriate, as additional exposure to violence may interfere with their goals. Alternatively, a sensory-seeking child may benefit from gifts that allow them to stim. For example, if a child rocks back and forth, a swing may be a great way to meet their sensory needs. Additionally, certain objects can elicit sensory sensitivities which can trigger behaviors in some children and teens with autism (e.g., loud noises, highly preferred items, phobias, etc.). Ask friends and family of the person you are buying the gift for if there are any behaviors that possess a safety risk that need to be considered before purchasing a gift.

Focus on toys that encourage interaction with others.

Social deficits are a defining characteristic of autism. When gift-giving, try to purchase gifts that encourage social interaction. While almost any toy or game can be turned into a group play, certain activities may be more conducive to social interactions than others. For example, instead of buying a computer game, consider purchasing “Bop It,” which is an electronic interactive game that can be played among a group of friends or family.

Focus on finding new things they will love.

Children and teens with autism sometimes have restricted or limited interests (e.g., only talking about trucks or only playing with dinosaurs). To help build upon their current interests to introduce them to a wider range of activities, try finding new activities similar to their current interests. For example, if a child’s favorite activity is playing with “Play-Doh,” kinetic sand or slime may be an appropriate gift to help expand their interest due to its similarity in form of play. Ultimately, gifts that will provide new experiences may act as potential new reinforcers (e.g., stimuli that increase behaviors) and could significantly enrich the child or teen’s learning environment.

Resources

Increasing Task Engagement Using Preference or Choice-Making
Some Behavioral and Methodological Factors Affecting Their Efficacy as Classroom Interventions

For more holiday tips, check out Reducing Holiday Stress for Families of Children with Autism and Preparing for Holiday Meals.

Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP) Opens 2 New Learning Centers

With over 25 years of experience providing compassionate, contemporary ABA therapy to children with autism, we’re delighted to share that we opened two new WEAP Learning Centers this past summer and fall in West Bend and Janesville, Wisconsin. Each new center held an open house that included an official ribbon-cutting with their local Chamber of Commerce and opportunities for families to tour the facility, speak with the leadership team, and participate in fun activities. These new locations offer a supportive, learning-rich environment where children with autism can work on individual skills in a group setting.

We couldn’t be more excited to support more families in the communities we serve. To learn more about where our services are located, find a location.

BACA Opens New Learning Center in Indianapolis, IN

With over 10 years of experience providing compassionate, contemporary ABA therapy to children with autism, we’re delighted to share that we opened a new BACA Learning Center this fall in Indianapolis, IN. The new center held an open house that included an official ribbon-cutting with their local Chamber of Commerce and opportunities for families to tour the facility, speak with the leadership team, and participate in fun activities. This new location offers a supportive, learning-rich environment where children with autism can work on individual skills in a group setting.

We couldn’t be more excited to support more families in the communities we serve. To learn more about where our services are located, find a location.