Empathy vs. Compassion in Teens with Autism

A lot of people use empathy and compassion interchangeably, although there are several key differences. One myth about teens with autism is that they lack empathy. While teens with autism often care a lot about relationships and are sensitive to the emotions of others, they have a hard time understanding other people’s needs and possible origins of their distress.They will try to express compassion but because they’re not empathetically aware and worry about saying the wrong thing, it can often get thrown back at them. Teens with autism may internalize that they are not empathetic people or good friends and stop making an effort to show compassion if they’ve experienced negative responses from others.

Defining Empathy:

  • Refers to the ability to understand another person’s feelings
  • Evokes understanding
  • Implies that you understand the other person’s situation
  • Doesn’t mean you are motivated to help

Our society values empathy in relationships, as people want to feel understood and like they belong. Understanding what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes helps you understand how to respond to them in a way that they will be receptive to receiving help. However, often people don’t want to believe that they “need help,” they just want to be listened to and feel validated for the suffering they feel.

Understanding Compassion

  • Refers to being sensitive to the suffering of others
  • Evokes feelings of sympathy, pity, and concern
  • Doesn’t imply that you understand the other person’s situation
  • Doesn’t involve taking on the negative emotions of others
  • Implies that you are motivated to help

Although compassion shows more engagement with others and affection towards them, people don’t always perceive it as authentic. They don’t always want others to see their suffering. They sometimes believe that other people trying to help is a message that they can’t do it themselves.   

In a recent episode of our podcast, Neurodiversity University, founder Brandon Parks explains, “kids that are on the spectrum are full of compassion. They can see that someone is hurting and feel bad for them. They’re just not good at emotive perspective-taking where they can say ‘this person must feel like this.’” 

Instead, he describes, “they might think, ‘this person looks sad. I wonder what makes her sad. I wonder what I can do to make her less sad,’ but acknowledging other people’s sadness, or happiness, is not always a constructive way of helping. Our goal is to help teens practice how to respond to others and learn how to celebrate how they express themselves and show compassion in relationships.” 

Ways to Help Teens with Autism Cultivate Healthy Compassion


  • Teach them to practice self-compassion. While they may show others compassion consistently, they are less kind to themselves. Teens with autism are often highly self-critical and view their struggles as “failures” rather than things to work on. Helping them recognize their own strengths builds self-esteem and encourages self-care. 
  • Encourage them to practice kindness without people-pleasing. Compassion often comes naturally to them and isn’t attached to a desire for a reward. However, it is common for acts of kindness to be reinforced by approval from others.When their compassion is rejected or misunderstood, they are more likely to pull back. Teaching them to continue practicing compassion in these moments is essential to helping them stay connected.
  • Help them let go of black-and white judgments, like right or wrong, good or bad. Teens with autism often try hard to learn social rules, even if they don’t understand why they’ve been shaped, but see them as rigid expectations rather than guidelines for healthy relationships. Keeping an open mind helps them be less critical of themselves and others.
  • Validate their experiences. As they have trouble taking the perspective of others, it can be hard for others to understand where they’re coming from. They may be more sensitive to certain sensory experiences and in social interactions and more resilient in negative situations that they may not understand. Emphasize that they are doing the best they can and teach them that others are doing the same. In situations where they are struggling to understand the perspective of others, suggest possible reasons to encourage them to come to their own conclusions without judging that it may not come immediately.

New Focus Academy Can Help

New Focus Academy is a residential treatment center for boys ages 12-18 who struggle with autism spectrum disorder or other neurodevelopmental disorders. The program utilizes positive reinforcement to increase the student’s self-esteem and independence. The social skills that teens on the autism spectrum learn at New Focus will help them learn to have positive social interaction, organization, and improve their self-management skills. Students are given the opportunity to gain the confidence they need to foster and maintain healthy relationships and lifestyle habits. 

For more information about social skills and compassion in teens with autism, call us at (844) 313-6749. We can help your family today!


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