Understanding The Connection Between Dyslexia And Empathy

REVIEWED BY NUMBERDYSLEXIA’S EXPERT PANEL ON DECEMBER 22, 2022

Think back to a time your friend got hurt badly in front of you. What was your immediate reaction? 

You probably went to your friend’s rescue as soon as possible, helped them up, and ran to get the first aid kit. What was your facial expression while cleaning the wound and providing first aid?

You were probably grimacing with the pain yourself, careful not to hurt your friend while also trying to console them that it will be better soon.

You saw your friend get hurt and felt their pain while you ran to get the first aid kit and throughout while you were providing them with first aid. This feeling of putting yourself in the situation where the other person is and using that information to guide your behavior is called empathy.

This blog will talk about the importance of empathy in our lives, how and if having  Dyslexia can affect an individual’s empathetic skills, and various strategies to build and strengthen empathy.

Dyslexia and Empathy: Is there a connection?

There have been several studies that have tried to understand the relationship between various developmental learning differences like Dyslexia and how, if at all, they might affect the individual’s emotional capabilities. One of the more studied emotional skills has been empathy.

A 2016 study sought to find the relationship between reading abilities and empathy. It examined both cognitive and emotional empathy and compared typical readers with those who had dyslexia. The findings revealed that individuals with dyslexia, who scored low on the reading ability tests, also had lower cognitive empathy scores. This study also implicated that the reason behind this finding is that the same neural substrate, the temporoparietal junction, is responsible for both reading and empathy[1].

Although a 2021 study contradicted these findings. Based on previous studies, it was posited that children with dyslexia have high emotional reactivity, a trait found in people with great social skills. It continued to show the same by showing various children, with and without dyslexia, a movie and noting their respiratory sinus arrhythmia and cardiac deceleration. The findings revealed that children with dyslexia showed higher respiratory sinus arrhythmia and cardiac deceleration, along with more facial expressions while viewing the movie. This showed that children with dyslexia showed higher empathy while watching the characters and their stories[2].

Greater empathy was also one of the reasons cited by a study that tried to understand the reason behind the success of 60 individuals with dyslexia thriving in challenging professions. 67% of the participants of the study stated that they had built their self-concept and endured it through tough times using their ability to empathize with others and themselves. They said that facing hardships as an individual with dyslexia had actually made them more open to listening and understanding other people’s troubles and pains[3].

The power of empathy

The presence and importance of empathy can be noted in any and every task. Empathy can be first observed in children as young as 6 months old. They learn several things at that age based on how their parents or primary caregivers react. This process of social referencing helps children understand everything about their world, including what behavior is appropriate and brings a smile to their parents’ faces and what people or places are unsafe and makes their parents display tense and uneasy facial expressions[4]

Social referencing is an infant’s way of wanting to belong within the world, through their parents. Later in life as well, empathy plays a key role in fulfilling one of the basic human needs of belongingness. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, belongingness falls on the third number after physiological and safety needs. He called it one of the lower-order needs that almost every individual craves in life[5]. Empathy becomes crucial in fulfilling this need by helping build and sustain social relationships ranging from those of acquaintances and friends to those of family and intimate partners.

Empathy as a skill allows the individual to take and understand another person’s perspective. This can be critical when you’re trying to comfort someone who’s feeling low or celebrate someone’s accomplishments with them. This perspective-taking can also be useful in problem-solving when the individual has tried all the alternatives they can think of. Here ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes could mean thinking about how they would solve this problem. This can help generate new and innovative ideas. Additionally, empathy has also been found to be an important asset that makes the individual more inclusive as a person and more effective as a leader[6].

Building and strengthening empathy

As illustrated above, empathy is an important skill in any and every area of life. It is not something some people are just born with. Instead, it is a skill that can be learned and bettered with time and practice. There are several ways to do the same:

1. Play Pretend

Play Pretend

This can include using hypothetical scenarios where you role-play as different individuals and try to understand the situation from another’s point of view. For example, playing out a scenario where a friend has recently lost their dog and is really broken up about it. The challenge here could be to not only understand what the friend might be feeling but also to use that understanding to guide their efforts to be there for the friend in their sadness or even make some attempts to cheer them up. 

There are various online games for children and adults that require them to understand and interpret emotions based on the situation and make the next move accordingly. These games can also serve as a virtual role-play setting where individuals can learn to understand other people’s emotions based on their facial expressions and the situation and use that information to guide their behavior.

2. Story Time

Story Time

Stories are nothing short of magic, that allows the individual to be and vicariously live various lives through the characters.

This is exactly why stories can be a great way to learn and practice empathy. They provide a great amount of context and background about the characters, such that the individual not only starts to understand them but also personally connects with them at some level or another. So when these characters go through a spectrum of emotions ranging from ecstatic to dejected, they sit right there, feeling it all with them.

3. What should Ben do?

This game can be really useful in teaching individuals how to effectively use empathy. While some situations would call for just sitting with your friend in their sadness and helplessness and sharing those feelings with them, others would require you to put in active efforts to cheer your friend up. Knowing how to let your empathy guide these decisions is an important skill.

In ‘What should Be do’ the individual is put in various hypothetical scenarios and given several options as to what Ben should choose to do next. There is no right and wrong answer but the individual is expected to give an appropriate explanation for their choice. The more the individual moves away from their own experiences and towards the experience of the individual in the scenario, the better they get that empathizing and using it to effectively choose and guide their behavior. 

4. Lead the way 

One of the best and most important ways to instill empathy in children is for their parents and caregivers to lead the way, using their actions. 

When the children observe their parents’ understanding and caring about their and other people’s emotions and experiences, they also try to model this behavior. The more understood the child feels, the more understanding they end up being.

5. Practice and Practice

Practice and Practice

Empathy is an important social skill that cannot be fully encapsulated and mastered in isolation. 

The more the individual practices taking other people’s perspectives in their daily lives, paying attention and listening to their emotional experiences, while also focusing on their body language, the better they get at empathizing. For learning and strengthening a skill like empathy, the only way across is through it all. The more the individual engages in emotional conversations and sits with the range of uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions, the better they get at it.

Conclusion

Empathy is an essential everyday skill that helps us meaningfully interact with the world and fulfill our most basic need of belongingness. Various studies have tried to find the links between learning differences such as that of dyslexia and empathy. While some have found that people with dyslexia have lower levels of empathy as compared to those who don’t, other studies have revealed contradictory findings, citing higher levels of empathy to be the reason behind the success of individuals with dyslexia in challenging professions. At the same time, these skills can be inculcated among youngsters and adults to boost this skill. 

Empathy is a skill that, much like a muscle, can be strengthened by using various techniques including playing pretend and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, reading stories and understanding what the characters are going through as well as by having more and more emotional conversations and practicing empathy in daily life and having.

References

  1. Gabay, Y., Shamay-Tsoory, S. G., & Goldfarb, L. (2016). Cognitive and emotional empathy in typical and impaired readers and its relationship to reading competence. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 38(10), 1131-1143.
  1. Palser, E. R., Morris, N. A., Roy, A. R., Holley, S. R., Veziris, C. R., Watson, C., … & Sturm, V. E. (2021). Children with developmental dyslexia show elevated parasympathetic nervous system activity at rest and greater cardiac deceleration during an empathy task. Biological Psychology, 166, 108203.
  1. Fink, R. P. (2002). Successful careers: The secrets of adults with dyslexia. Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, 18(1), 118-135.
  1. Boccia, M., & Campos, J. J. (1989). Maternal emotional signals, social referencing, and infants’ reactions to strangers. New directions for child development.
  1. Maslow, A., & Lewis, K. J. (1987). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Salenger Incorporated, 14(17), 987-990.
  1. Skinner, C., & Spurgeon, P. (2005). Valuing empathy and emotional intelligence in health leadership: a study of empathy, leadership behaviour and outcome effectiveness. Health Services Management Research, 18(1), 1-12.

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