Is it Lack of Empathy or Sensory Dysregulation?

Autistic children are generally diagnosed with Sensory Integration Disorders or Sensory Dysregulation. What does this mean? It means that they often overreact or underreact to sensory stimuli. When I feel something soft, I may run my hands over it a few times and enjoy the tactile experience, but I can stop myself from having to repeat the action over and over again. I can make a judgment call as to when I should repeat the experience. In other words, I have typical regulation skills. Not so with most Autistic and Asperger’s children. They seek the sensory stimulation but do not have the regulation skills to control where, when and how much they engage in the experience.
Humans contain 5 senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, touching and tasting. If a person has dysregulation of some or all of the senses, it may lead to a strong need to repeat or even avoid a sensory experience. If someone’s hearing is quite acute and they hear sounds more intensely than others, exposure to those sounds may cause them to react strongly or withdraw from a situation. If they crave oral stimulation, it might make them put all sorts of different textured objects in the mouth. It may result in aversion to foods or obsession with certain textured foods because of both texture and taste. The point is that we all have different levels of sensory arousal, which is what makes us all individuals. However, most typical children have similar levels to each other and despite their sensory levels, they are able to regulate their behavior in relation to sensory experiences because they know and practice what is most appropriate for their current environment. Typical children may go so far as to inhibit their sensory desires in an effort to act appropriately in a given situation.
What does this mean to the Speech Language Pathologist? We deal with modeling appropriate social pragmatic behavior and language on a daily basis. Some of us do this in small groups or individually, but it is always on the agenda. All too often I find that others think Autistic and Asperger’s children do not recognize or empathize with their peers. Yet I have sometimes found they do empathize, quite strongly. Sometimes they feel so strongly, they do not want to discuss it or deal with it because it is too upsetting. So I have always felt that the inappropriate social emotional reactions are more a result of sensory dysregulation than lack of empathy.

In a recent article entitled, “Theory Finds That Individuals With Asperger’s Syndrome Don’t Lack Empathy – In Fact If Anything They Empathize Too Much” , it was reported by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the theory suggests that the fundamental problem in autism-spectrum disorders is not a social deficiency but, rather, a hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response. Virtually all people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, report various types of over-sensitivity and intense fear. The Markrams argue that social difficulties of those with autism spectrum disorders stem from trying to cope with a world where someone has turned the volume on all the senses and feelings up past 10.

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