A mom from Akeela Family Camp recently posted a research study about individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and empathy. (The 2009 study by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne is referenced here, here and elsewhere). While the research is a few years old, we believe it is extremely relevant.
We have always said that the notion that our campers (and those like them) lack empathy is absolutely bogus. We have seen time and time again that our campers are extremely caring individuals who are capable of understanding the emotions of others and showing them compassion. There are times at camp when we believe that a typically developing child would not be as insightful in an emotional moment as our children are. We had a 11-year-old camper this past summer who made it his goal to help support all of the campers he met who were feeling homesick. There were many times when we would see this boy with his arm around a peer and overhear him saying something like, “It’s OK to feel sad; I felt sad my first summer too”.
Our experience is reflective of the Markrams’ research conclusions: that those with ASD are actually hypersensitive to the emotional experiences of those around them. That “over-experiencing” of others’ emotions can be very overwhelming and can create the individual to shut down or escape into their own world.
We believe it is imperative that we not assume how others experience the world. We’ve often told parents that our kids work harder than most performing everyday tasks; it’s as if they are trying to interact with environmental stimuli while simultaneously performing long division at hearing background static. It’s hard to do so many things at once. When our campers “shut down” or retreat into themselves for a few minutes, we don’t assume they are disinterested. Instead, we suspect they are taking a moment to organize their experience. Although our campers do not always know how to express themselves in the exact ways that society expects, they deserve to be recognized as people filled with genuine feelings, rich emotional lives and yes, empathy.
– Debbie and Eric