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Understanding Hyper-Empathy in Autism

Understanding Hyper-Empathy in Autism

Of all the traits that we as parents would like our children to embrace, empathy is perhaps among the most critical. Yet, is it possible to have too much empathy? Could we feel too much for another person and experience their emotional situations too strongly?

Such is the case with hyper-empathy in autism. Hyper-empathy is defined as a neurodivergent condition characterized by having an overreactive emotional response to what others are experiencing to such a point that it becomes difficult to regulate one’s own emotions as a result.

Sometimes, these intense emotions can cause anxiety. If you’d like to learn more about how to manage it, you can download your free guide here:

What is hyper-empathy?

As we know, empathy is the ability to feel and understand another person’s emotions in a particular circumstance or situation. When a person experiences empathy, they are in tune with another person’s feelings and emotions.

Children with autism spectrum disorder who have hyper-empathy not only feel these emotions but often experience them even more intensely than the person they are empathizing with.

Unfortunately, children on the spectrum often become overwhelmed by the emotions they pick up from people around them. This overwhelming feeling can last long after they are no longer around the person they were empathizing with.

Signs of hyper-empathy in ASD

There are many signs of hyper-empathy in autism, including the following:

  • Feeling another person’s emotional suffering for several days after being around them.
  • Having a strong emotional or physical reaction when witnessing people facing tough situations.
  • Displaying strong physical or emotional reactions while looking at videos, photos, or other media of someone experiencing a negative situation.
  • Having difficulty establishing boundaries with others because of concern and sorrow for what they are experiencing.
  • Forgetting to take care of themself due to emotional overwhelm from someone else’s problems.

Those who experience hyper-empathy describe it as “absorbing” the emotions of others. They often say that feeling empathy is “painful” because the emotions they pick up from others are so unfiltered and raw.

What causes hyper-empathy in autistic individuals?

Though the exact cause of hyper-empathy in some individuals with ASD can be difficult to recognize, there may be a definitive link between trauma and hyper-empathy.

It is theorized that if trauma or abuse (particularly sexual abuse) occurs, the child will be more sensitive to situations and the emotional discord that surrounds such an issue.

Mother soothing her son https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/hyper-empathy-autism/

Another theory is that children with ASD often have sensory processing sensitivity, which means they are more reactive to sensory experiences. This heightened awareness might also make them more sensitive to the emotions of others.

The effects of hyper-empathy

Hyper-empathy can manifest in various behaviors in children with ASD. It’s important to recognize that while these children can strongly feel the emotions of others, they often struggle to express these feelings verbally.

This creates a frustrating dynamic in which they have a buildup of emotional empathy while simultaneously being unable to voice these feelings. Because of this, children with ASD are often misunderstood in social situations. People might think they are not empathetic, which can lead to further social isolation and exclusion.

Managing hyper-empathy in autism

Parents often act as a mirror to help children understand their own emotions. By reflecting on and validating our children’s feelings, we can help them see that their emotions are real and that they are being heard.

Children with hyper-empathy are extremely sensitive to the feelings and struggles of others. It’s important to help these children by encouraging healthy boundaries. This can reduce the likelihood that they will be deeply affected by others’ emotional challenges.

If hyper-empathy continues to have a significant impact on the child, it might be necessary to seek professional counseling. A counselor can help establish clearer boundaries and provide guidance on managing empathy and emotions.

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Understanding and support

How do we help our children with ASD and hyper-empathy? The answer is through empathy itself. It’s essential to use our understanding of empathy to recognize that the emotional pain of others can be particularly contagious to our children who experience hyper-empathy.

Empathy is the deepest human connection, and when our children display it in any context, it shows their attachment to others. We want to nurture and balance empathy so that our children can thrive in a world that is often too hurried to recognize its importance.

By fostering empathy in a balanced way, we can help our children navigate their intense emotional experiences and develop healthy relationships with others.

FAQs

Q: Is hyper-empathy a symptom of autism?

A: A recent study from Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom indicates that as many as 78% of those with ASD may have traits of hyper-empathy. This is a shift from previous research that indicated the majority of those with ASD may have had reduced empathy in many social situations.

Q: What does hyper-empathy look like?

A: Those who display hyper-empathy will often mirror the emotional experiences of others but to an extreme degree. These feelings can affect them deeply, sometimes lasting for hours or even days.

Q: Is hyper-empathy a trauma response?

A: Studies of those who have experienced trauma, especially when they were young, are found to have a higher level of empathy versus those who have not experienced such a situation. The more severe the trauma, the higher the degree of empathy that the individual experiences afterward.  

References: 

A reflective guide on the meaning of empathy in autism research. Methods in Psychology. 2023;8:100109. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590260122000200?via%3Dihub

Harmsen, I.E. Empathy in Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord 49, 3939–3955 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-04087-w 

Hume, R., & Burgess, H. (2021). “I’m Human After All”: autism, trauma, and affective empathy. Autism in adulthood, 3(3), 221-229.

Kimber, L., Verrier, D., & Connolly, S. (2023). Autistic People’s Experience of Empathy and the Autistic Empathy Deficit Narrative. Autism in Adulthood.

Leonard, S. R. K., & Willig, C. (2021). The experience of living with very high empathy: A critical realist, pragmatic approach to exploring objective and subjective layers of the phenomenon. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 21(1), 52-65.

Leonard, S. (2019). The experience of living with very high empathy (Doctoral dissertation, City, University of London).

Richard-Mornas, A., Mazzietti, A., Koenig, O., Borg, C., Convers, P., & Thomas-Antérion, C. (2014). Emergence of hyper empathy after right amygdalohippocampectomy. Neurocase, 20(6), 666-670.

Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2011). The neural bases for empathy. The Neuroscientist, 17(1), 18-24.

Shalev I, Warrier V, Greenberg DM, et al. Reexamining empathy in autism: Empathic disequilibrium as a novel predictor of autism diagnosis and autistic traits. Autism Res. 2022;15(10):1917-1928.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9804307/ 

Trimmer, E., McDonald, S., & Rushby, J. A. (2017). Not knowing what I feel: Emotional empathy in autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 21(4), 450-457. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361316648520  

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