Tag Archives: empathy

Emotional Dysfunction: Alexithymia and ASD

A typical aspie-NT conversation about feelings:

NT: What’s wrong?

Aspie: I don’t know.

NT: You look upset.

Aspie: . . .

NT: Are you sad? Angry?

Aspie: I don’t know.

NT: It’s okay. You can tell me.

Aspie: . . .

NT: Fine. Don’t tell me. I was just trying to help.

When an aspie says they don’t know what they’re feeling, it’s a literal statement. We aren’t trying to dodge the conversation. We aren’t withholding information. We aren’t being rude, mean, cold coy or vindictive.

I’ve had variations on the above conversation many times and it’s as frustrating for me as it is for the person who wants to know what’s wrong. The reason? I have difficulty identifying my emotions and even more trouble verbalizing them. Working through my emotional constellations has helped me identify some of the specific issues I–and many autistic people–have in processing and identifying feelings.

(Photo: Joe Shlabotnik / Creative Commons)

Predictably, I’ve grouped the issues into three general categories:

  • modulation (moderating the strength of my own emotions)
  • determination (identifying emotions in others)
  • discrimination (separating emotion directed at me from general expression of emotion)

Modulation: The Glitchy Volume Control

There is a common misconception that autistic people are unemotional. You’ll often hear this refuted by autistics themselves, who say they are too emotional. So which is it? For me, it’s both. My emotions gravitate toward the extremes of muted or intense; few emotional experiences fall in the midranges.

My default emotional state is neutral. I don’t feel especially good or bad. I’m present in the moment and content to be so. Externally, I may come across as serious or subdued, but reduced expressiveness shouldn’t be confused with a negative state of being or a lack of feeling.

The feelings are definitely there. Most of the time they quietly mind their own business and I need to consciously check-in to see what they’re up to. When they decide to fully surface on their own, however, they’re intense.

Unlike most neurotypicals, I don’t have a lot of ability to modulate the strength of my emotions.  Imagine a radio with an on/off switch and a glitchy volume control.

If you think about this in terms of the weak executive function associated with Asperger’s, it makes sense. Humans use reasoning, rationalization and labeling to modulate emotion. All of these methods fall under the umbrella of executive function. Labeling emotions, in particular, seems to be hard for aspies.

Determination: The Broken Mirror

Just as I have difficulty labeling my own emotions, I have trouble identifying what others are feeling. I struggle with interpreting facial expressions and body language. I’m weak at perspective-taking. Basically, when it comes to reading emotional clues, I’m like one of those old-time detectives who had to solve murders without any forensic evidence. There’s only so much information you can gather from what people tell you outright.

This difficulty determining what others are feeling is a big contributor to the stereotype of the empathy-deficient aspie. If someone is giving off “I’m sad” cues that I fail to recognize, when I don’t console them, they’ll assume I’m cold and unsympathetic.

For neurotypical people, emotional interaction is like looking in a mirror. They expect to see a reflective emotion looking back at them and when they don’t, they assume the mirror is broken.

This isn’t to say I’m oblivious to other people’s emotional states. I get the obvious ones and the ones that I can derive from contextual clues. What I tend to miss are the subtle or unexpected emotional states.

Discrimination: Missing the Target

I’ve always been disturbed by confrontation and conflict, even when I’m only a bystander. By default, The Scientist is in charge of “confrontation with others.” If something needs to be argued over or complained about–a botched repair job or an over-cooked restaurant meal–that’s his department. While he’s making that phone call or waiting for the manager to appear, I go off and hide.

As an adult, I’m not proud of this. Why do I desperately need to flee a situation to which I’m nothing more than an observer?

Because, I recently realized, I don’t discriminate between anger that is aimed at me and anger in general. When someone is angry, I invariably feel like I’m the cause or the target, even when I rationally know that I’m not.

If The Scientist calls me after a bad day, I hear how upset he is and immediately feel distressed. Not distressed as in “I should console my husband because he’s had a bad day.” I feel distressed in a “this is incredibly stressful and I want it to stop” kind of way. My brain immediately goes into “fix it” mode, searching for a way to make the other person feel better so I can also relieve my own distress.

Of course, a conversation with an upset spouse is upsetting to most people. But what about a conversation between two strangers that I’ve merely overheard? Twice in the past two weeks I’ve witnessed one person berating another for an etiquette infraction at the swimming pool. (Yes, we take our lap swimming seriously around these parts.) Both times I felt my heartbeat skyrocket, as if the anger was directed at me. In reality, I’m sure neither of these people even noticed I was standing nearby.

Even now, as I’m sitting here in Starbucks typing, the woman at the next table is telling a story about how mad she is at her sister-in-law; I can feel my blood pressure rising at the tone of her words. Words that are completely irrelevant to me. Words that, thanks to my funky brain wiring, I find impossible to tune out.

Yes, not only does my autistic brain not know how to interpret the emotional content of other people’s conversations, it also refuses to tune them out. And people wonder why we aspies like to spend a lot of time alone.

It took me a long time and a lot of thought to figure out why I respond to secondhand distress like this. Why should I feel emotionally assailed when the angry words are aimed at another person?

In part it’s related to my upbringing, but there is also an element of weak executive control at work. In theory, I should be able to rationalize away my overreaction by telling myself that I’m observing generalized anger (or frustration or sadness), not anger directed at me. I should be able to put myself in the other person’s shoes and direct my emotions at the target of their distress, rather than feeling like the target myself.


The three areas where I have difficulty–modulation, discrimination and determination–are actually core traits of alexithymia.

Alexithymia (literally: having no words for emotions) is impairment in identifying and describing emotions. Specifically, it’s characterized by:

  • difficulty identifying feelings
  • difficulty distinguishing between feelings and bodily sensations related to emotional arousal
  • difficulty describing feelings to others
  • impoverished imagination and fantasy life
  • a stimulus-dependent, externally oriented cognitive style

When I look at the list of alexithymic characteristics, I also realize that when I’m emotionally uncomfortable, I’m more likely to have physical complaints. I’ll be feeling frustrated or sad, but  complain that I’m uncomfortably cold or intolerably sleepy. This isn’t a connection I would make on my own, but once I see it described as part of alexithymia–like so much about my autistic self–it suddenly makes perfect sense.

There is a lot of overlap between alexithymia and ASD, both in the perception of emotions and the difficulty in verbalizing feelings. Not only are autistic people very likely to exhibit the characteristics of alexithymia, their parents are as well. However, many non-autistic people also have alexithymia, so it isn’t exclusive to ASD.

Alexithymia isn’t a clinical diagnosis like autism. It’s a construct (theory) used to describe the traits of people who have difficulty verbalizing emotions. It’s also a helpful way of thinking about some of the challenges that aspies have with processing feelings.


More on Alexithymia and ASD:

  • Next Tuesday, we’ll be doing the Alexithymia Questionnaire for Take-a-Test Tuesday.
  • Alexithymia and Grief at Unstrange Mind is a challenging and insightful piece about the mourning process 
  • Great example of an Alexithymia cheat sheet in the form of a flow chart at Radical Neurodivergence

Taking the Empathy Quotient Test

This week I took the Empathy Quotient (EQ) test. I know many of you have been waiting for this one. Next week we’ll do something less technical and more fun, but this week, I’m gonna hit you with a lot of background info. The EQ and the 2004 study that it was originally used in created a firestorm of controversy that never really died down.

The Empathy Quotient (EQ) test is intended to be a measure of your ability to understand how people feel and to respond appropriately. The questions on the EQ are based on the following definition of empathy:

“Empathy is the drive or ability to attribute mental states to another person/animal, and entails an appropriate affective response in the observer to the other person’s mental state.” (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, 2004)

This definition encompasses both cognitive empathy (perspective taking/attribution) and affective empathy (emotional response to another’s emotional state). Although many autistic people have described distinct variations in their perceived levels of cognitive and empathic empathy, Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright state that cognitive and affective empathy are too difficult to untangle and therefore must be looked at as a whole.

A subsequent 2005 study by Muncer and Ling challenged this belief by sorting 23 of the 40 EQ questions into three domains: cognitive, emotional reactivity, and social skills. To give you an idea of what types of skills fall into each domain, here are the top 5 most relevant questions for each:


  1. I can tune into how someone else feels rapidly and intuitively
  2. I am good at predicting how someone will feel
  3. I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward or uncomfortable
  4. I can easily work out what another person might want to talk about
  5. I can sense if I am intruding, even if the other person does not tell me

Social skills

  1. I do not tend to find social situations confusing
  2. I find it hard to know what to do in a social situation
  3. I often find it difficult to judge if something is rude or polite
  4. I find it difficult to explain to others things that I understand easily, when they do not understand it first time
  5. Friendships and relationships are just too difficult, so I tend not to bother with them

Emotional reactivity

  1. I tend to get emotionally involved with a friend’s problems
  2. Seeing people cry does not really upset me
  3. I really enjoy caring for other people
  4. I usually stay emotionally detached when watching a film
  5. If I say something that someone else is offended by, I think that is their problem, not mine

The 2005 study tested the 23 domain-specific EQ questions for gender differences. The emotional reactivity domain had the greatest gender differences, the cognitive domain had fewer differences and the social skills domain showed no differences in scores along gender lines. The authors theorized that emotional reactivity may be strongly rooted in the “willingness of an individual to express emotion” (drive) rather than the ability to understand another person’s emotional state.

This raises the question of how alexithymia (emotional dysfunction), which affects many people on the spectrum, might impact EQ scores. Many people on the spectrum experience alexithymia, making them less willing or able to express emotion due to challenges in regulating and processing feelings. Perhaps it isn’t that autistic people can’t understand the emotions of others, but that the cost of responding appropriately is too high.

Gender Bias Revisited

If you’ve been following Take-a-Test Tuesday closely, you’ve seen the discussion of gender bias in other screening instrument studies. The EQ study was heavily weighted toward males, with 65 males and 25 females in each group. That’s more than twice as many males as females in a study of a trait that is known to have gender differences in scoring.

Traditionally males score significantly lower than females on self-reported measures of empathy. On top of that, the EQ study had significantly more control group women than men with above average scores (>54) and 14% of control group males in the EQ study scored in the AS/HFA range.

Now consider that this study was used to test:

  • whether adults with high-functioning autism (HFA) or Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) have lower EQ scores
  • whether the EQ is inversely correlated with the AQ (i.e. the “more autistic” you are, the “less empathetic” you are)
  • whether the EQ inversely correlates with the Friendship Questionnaire (i.e. the “more autistic” you are, the less reciprocity and intimacy you’ll report having in relationships)
  • for sex differences in empathy

Baron-Cohen used the low EQ scores of the HFA/AS group as support for his theory that HFA/AS is an “empathy disorder.” The researchers subsequently conducted interviews with many of the HFA/AS study participants and reported that while they had difficulty knowing that their actions hurt another person, they did feel bad about it when such instances were pointed out to them, and therefore “are not like unfeeling psychopaths.”  (As I write this, I’m envisioning the tops of my autistic readers’ heads flying off. Repeatedly. Sorry.)

This study is also used as evidence to uphold another of Baron-Cohen’s theories (extreme male brain theory), further calling the motivation of the study design into question.

So, now that we’ve gotten ourselves all worked up about the questionable science underlying the EQ, let’s actually take the darn thing.

Pros and Cons of the EQ


  • Self-scoring
  • Scoring of slightly/definitely choices is weighted
  • Filler questions attempt to reduce repetitiveness
  • Clinically tested in both ASD and non-ASD populations


  • Measures cognitive empathy, emotional reactivity and social skills but doesn’t provide subscale scores
  • May be gender biased
  • May exhibit bias toward developer’s theory of autism
  • Probably longer than it needs to be (a 15-item version has shown similar outcomes)
  • Self-reported measures of empathy often have poor correlation with tests of empathic accuracy (i.e. we tend to think we’re either more or less empathetic than we are)

Taking the Test

When you take the EQ, you may question the relevance of some of the items. That’s because 40 are related to empathy and 20 are filler questions meant to be a distraction from the repetitive nature of the empathy questions. Only the 40 empathy-related questions count in the scoring; the 20 filler questions score a zero no matter how you answer them.

You can take the test here. There are 60 questions. Unlike some of the other tests we’ve taken, this test gives 2 points for a “definitely” answer and 1 point for a “slightly” answer so degree matters.

Scoring the Test

Possible scores range from 0 to 80. The average NT scores from two different studies were 47 and 50 for women and 41 and 42 for men. The average aspie score is 20.

A general scoring guideline:

  • 0-32 = below average
  • 33-52 = average
  • 53-63 = above average
  • 64-80 = significantly above average

I got a 12. The Scientist got a 48. I’ve taken the EQ twice in the past, and got an 8 and a 10. I jokingly told The Scientist this past week that I’m now 50% more empathetic.

If you get a ridiculously low score on this test, keep in mind that it’s measuring a few different things and conflating them into one “empathy” score, which isn’t very accurate. After reading the Muncer study, I wish the test returned subscale scores for cognitive, emotional reactivity and social skills. I’d like to know which of the areas I actually scored some points in.

The Bottom Line

The evidence for the EQ as a unidimensional measure of empathy is weak. Aspies tend to score low on the EQ, but what that means is unclear.

The Empathy Conundrum

Let’s get the hard part out there first: I lack empathy.

By lack, I don’t mean a complete absence of empathy; I have an empathy deficiency.  If most adults are “doing empathy” at the calculus level, I’m still in Algebra II and solving for X in ways that would make your head spin.

Before I discovered the online autism community, I assumed that my impaired empathy was typical for someone with Asperger’s. Much of the published literature includes impaired empathy as a common AS trait. “Lack of social or emotional reciprocity” is one of the diagnostic criteria. My own experience didn’t disprove that.

Then I discovered the online ASD community and suddenly felt like I needed to hide my struggles with empathy. Everywhere I looked people were refuting the notion that autistics lack empathy.

Again and again I’ve encountered discussions about empathy online and quietly slunk away, feeling like there was something wrong with me–like I was a “defective” autistic.

I Googled empathy–probably one too many times. I read the long list of definitions at Wikipedia . I read Simon Baron-Cohen’s writing on the subject and felt the same anger others have expressed at his biases. I read looooong threads on Wrong Planet and Facebook. I revisited the diagnostic criteria. I combed through the #actuallyautistic tag on Tumblr.

The more I read, the more confused I became. I started to wonder if I was talking about the same thing others were talking about when I use the word empathy.

So let’s talk about that. What is empathy, exactly? What are we talking about when we talk about empathy?

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Empathy, in the most basic sense, is the ability to understand and share an emotional state with another person.

As an adult with a good amount of life experience, I can often understand the emotional state of another person. I know that if someone’s dog has died, they’ll feel sad. Most people probably come to this conclusion in a more instinctive way than I do, but I get there all the same.

Depending on the situation, I may share an emotional state with another person to some degree. I know how I felt when my dog died. Logically I know that the other person feels very sad. If I knew the person’s dog, I’ll feel a sense of loss myself, and that will contribute to my sharing their emotional state. However, I rarely experience a strong emotional reaction to another person’s circumstances.

That’s not to say that I don’t experience concern toward other people. Simple concern for others, though, isn’t so much empathy as sympathy. Sympathy is a concern for the wellbeing of another person. It can exist in the absence of the empathic act of sharing an emotional state with that person. It often arises from empathy, but it doesn’t have to.

When my daughter says she’s had a bad day at work, even though I find it hard to share her emotional state, I sympathize with her frustration or sadness. I don’t know what it feels like to get a phone call from a suddenly homeless student. I can’t truly share what my daughter is feeling as she tells me about the experience. But I do worry about her ability to cope with the situation. I understand how important her work with is to her. I hear the distress in her voice and want to do what I can to offer comfort.

In this type of situation, I have a great deal of sympathy, regardless of how strongly rooted in empathy my concern is. My sympathy doesn’t always come across like a neurotypical person’s sympathy would–okay, it rarely does–but it exists just the same.

The Challenges of Perspective Taking

The examples I used above are fairly explicit in terms of the emotional content of the situation. Both a dead dog or a student who’s been kicked out of her home have obvious contextual clues to the emotions that are present. Even my rudimentary empathic radar is going to pick them up.

Where I struggle most is in subtle situations. I often say things that other people consider insensitive and then I completely miss their wounded reaction to my comment. Why? Because I didn’t know that my comment was insensitive in the first place and I have trouble reading nonverbal communication.

Think about it. If you didn’t know someone’s dog had died, would you find it easy to understand and share their emotional state? Probably not. You’d pick up that something was wrong, but you wouldn’t be able to truly comprehend how they felt until they explained the source of their distress.

For me, all the little things that people communicate nonverbally or hint at or imply are like a whole bunch of secretly dead dogs. Until some says, “your comment hurt my feelings because ________” all I have is a vague feeling that something is off. Maybe not even that.

This is why I “failed” the Sally-Anne test. Twice. I failed it when I first discovered it early in my reading about Asperger’s and then I failed it again a few weeks ago, because it was presented in a slightly different format. Yep, twice.

You can argue that the Sally-Anne test has little to do with empathy. It’s true, the Sally-Anne test doesn’t predict the emotional dimension of empathy. Taking the test doesn’t require you to share an emotional state with Sally. It does, however, require you to set aside your own knowledge of the situation and take Sally’s perspective.

This is where a more precise definition of empathy comes in handy. Empathy actually has two components: cognitive (perspective taking) and affective (emotional response to another’s emotional state). The Sally-Anne test is a test of cognitive empathy, which is impaired in people with Asperger’s. However, when it comes to affective empathy, according to a 2007 study* aspies are on par with neurotypicals.

So. Affective empathy? We have it. Cognitive empathy? Not so much.

This is why I can fail a simple test twice, even when I already know the “answer.” I automatically default to my own perspective. I can take another person’s perspective, but it often requires a conscious decision on my part to do so. This seems to be something that’s silently implied in the general, vague, oft-used notion of empathy: that one can spontaneously and instinctively understand and share an emotional state with another.

When I say I have an empathy deficiency, I mean that I struggle with taking the view of another person spontaneously and instinctively. I lack cognitive empathy.

Too Much Empathy?

Over and over again I see references to autistic people having too much empathy. While I think the people using this phrase mean well, I’m not sure it’s accurate. Is an autistic person who feels overwhelmed by an emotional situation truly sharing and understanding the emotional state of another person too much or are they overwhelmed by an inability to regulate their own reaction to a highly-charged situation?

Generally, when I feel emotionally overwhelmed by another person’s emotions, it’s related to my alexithymia (emotional dysfunction). In short, I have trouble regulating my own emotions and I have trouble discriminating between emotions that are “aimed at” me and emotions that are “aimed at” someone else. If I encounter two people having a shouting argument, my emotional reaction is the same as if I were the target of their shouting, as if they were both angry at me.

I don’t think this is empathy. I’m not sharing their emotional state (anger) so much as feeling like the target of it. If I were sharing the emotional state of the people in the shouting match, wouldn’t I feel like shouting at someone, too? Instead, I feel frightened and intimidated. I feel an intense need to escape from a situation to which I’m nothing more than a bystander.

In fact, in this kind of situation, the only person I’m thinking about is myself and how uncomfortable I am. There I go again, taking my own perspective. My distress at the situation might outwardly appear to be empathic but my internal reaction is a great big “MAKE IT STOP, NOW.”

This type of reaction is mentioned in the 2007 study I referenced earlier. The researchers found that the aspies scored significantly higher on a scale of personal distress than the neurotypical group, indicating “a greater tendency to have self-oriented feelings of anxiety and discomfort in response to tense interpersonal settings.” Note the use of self-oriented feelings in that sentence. Empathy by definition describes a state shared with others; an overabundance of self-directed anxiety or discomfort is not the same as “too much empathy.”

The Right Way to be Autistic

Circling back to what got me started on this post: the subtle implication in the discussion about empathy that there is a right way to be autistic and that right way includes having empathy or too much empathy. And perhaps as a corollary to that: autistics who have too much empathy are doing their part to subvert the stereotype of the unfeeling autistic.

That was probably an unpopular paragraph. If you found it offensive or upsetting, take a moment to stop and think about why.

Is there any difference between the subtle pressure to (appear to) have empathy and the subtle (or not so subtle) pressure to not stim in public or to make eye contact? Is advancing the belief that all autistics have empathy another way of making us seem more normal? Is there a difference between pressure to not look different outwardly and the same sort of pressure to not feel different inwardly?

Empathy is often philosophically framed as a fundamental element of the human condition. Without it, are we somehow less than human? What if we have impaired empathy–is our humanity impaired?

Choose Your Words

Perhaps we need to be more thoughtful about how we use the word empathy.

Empathy is not interchangeable with sympathy.

Empathy is not interchangeable with emotion.

Empathy is not interchangeable with emotional overload.

Empathy is not some hoop to be jumped through to prove to the world that we may be autistic, but it’s not that bad because “oh look, we have empathy just like you!” (Even if we do, in whatever form. There should be no burden of proof.)

Empathy has many definitions, but they all have at their core understanding the emotional state of another person.

When I say I lack empathy, what I mean is I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others. Hell, I have a deficit in understanding my own emotional state at times.

"I lack empathy" simply means that "I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others."
“I lack empathy” simply means that “I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others.”

This doesn’t mean I’m unsympathetic.

It doesn’t mean I don’t care for others.

It doesn’t mean I can’t show concern.

It doesn’t mean I have no emotions.

It doesn’t mean I don’t get overwhelmed by other people’s emotional states.

It doesn’t mean I’m any less human than you are.

What does it mean then?

That I may need more information than a typical person to understand a social situation. That my reactions to your emotions may be unconventional. That I have to work harder to grasp what comes naturally to most people.

Simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less.


*Thank you to Pi for pointing me toward this study. It turned out to be the missing link in wrapping this post up.

For a mom’s point of view on this, check out Does My Child Lack Empathy? by Jeanie at Reinventing Mommy

The One Where the Aspie Rants About Empathy and the Experts

I just finished watching an educational DVD that was supposed to provide “simulations” to help parents and teachers develop empathy for kids with Sensory Processing Disorders.

And now I’m annoyed.

A sampling of the simulations on the DVD:

  • walk toe-to-toe with your eyes closed to simulate vestibular dysfunction
  • search for an item in your purse with your eyes closed to simulate tactile dysfunction
  • do chair push-ups to simulate proprioceptive dysfunction (huh?)
  • play charades to simulate . . . I don’t even know what the point of that one was except maybe to give one of the participants the chance to make the brilliant observation, “I know that reading facial expression is so hard for kids with autism.”

Oh, the empathy! I feel better already.

I probably could have overlooked the poorly designed exercises and been happy with the tips I picked up on dealing with sensory dysfunction, except for two things. The class of occupational therapy students demonstrating the simulations giggled their way through most of the exercises like they were party games and at the end the instructor wrapped with, “Now that you have felt what it’s like to have a sensory processing disorder . . .”

To which I shouted back, “Lady, you have no fucking clue!”

The simulations on the DVD were the equivalent of closing your eyes for thirty seconds and then thinking you know what it means to be blind.

Caution: Stunts performed on a Closed Track by Expert Aspie

What would the simulations look like if someone who actually knows sensory dysfunction feels like designed them? If that someone happened to be an angry autistic woman who’s had too much coffee, they’d look like this:

Proprioception* dysfunction simulation #1: Welcome to class! Let’s get started with the exercises. As you go to take your seat in the classroom, miscalculate how far you are from the first desk in your row, catching your thigh on the corner of the desk and knocking your classmate’s pen and water bottle to the ground. When you bend over to help him pick them up, bang heads with him. Ignore his exasperated sigh and pretend that every single person in the room isn’t either staring at you or carefully avoiding staring at you.

Proprioception dysfunction simulation #2 (bonus take home exercise): Pick a morning when you’re late for work. As you get ready to head out the door, grab your coffee mug with enough pressure to get it off the counter, but not enough hang on to it. Curse loudly as it crashes to the floor in a mess of shattered ceramic and hot liquid. Curse some more as you cut yourself cleaning up the shards of ceramic (damn you, fine motor coordination).

Repeat daily. Let me know when you’re ready to start adding in the other 6 areas of sensory dysfunction.

Now That I’m Feeling Less Ragey . . .

. . . I’ll try some constructive criticism.

This DVD felt like a misguided attempt at turning SPD into an “experience” to build empathy in OT students. While the sentiment is admirable, I think the big danger is that once someone assumes they know what another person is experiencing, they stop listening.

Perhaps that’s why the creator of this DVD failed so miserably with the simulations portion of the program. If she’d run it by a few adults with SPD, I’m sure the exercises would have looked different. Even better, she could scrapped the simulations altogether and devoted that portion of the program listening to adults and children with SPD talk about what it’s like to have a hypersensitive tactile response or hyposensitivity to pain.

Yes, the instructor on the DVD has an OTR/L after her name. That makes her an expert in occupational therapy, not in having an SPD. A five-year-old with an SPD is more of an expert in what that feels like than an adult with a dozen letters after his or her name.

As someone who struggles with mild to moderate sensory integration issues, I don’t think it’s possible to create exercises that replicate that experience for neurotypical people. And if the goal is to create empathy for people with SPD, I think there are better ways of going about than a few minutes of engaging in a botched imitation of what it might be like to live with SPD.

Empathy is “the capacity to recognize what another person is feeling.” Nowhere in that definition is there a requirement to experience first hand through simulations what the other person is feeling. To recognize what someone is feeling, I’ve found it’s helpful to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers.

As exercises go, it’s a simple one.

And yes, this is the aspie giving advice on empathy. Go figure.


*Proprioception refers to your awareness of the position of your body. You can find a great summary of what types of activities might be beneficial for improving proprioception and other physical attributes in children with autism at Physical Exercise and Autism fact sheet. You can find some examples of therapuetic activities for kids with SPD at Activities for kids with sensory processing disorder.