Saturday, May 16, 2015

Autism and Empathy

Not too long ago I accompanied my dad to a doctor appointment. It was wet and very cold outside. The parking lot and sidewalk were a bit slippery. As my dad and I were walking into the building a car pulled up, and a very frail, elderly woman got out of the car. She crept slowly toward the front door, one very tiny step at a time. She looked like she might topple over, as she was so unsteady on her feet. I stepped toward her and offered her my arm. She gladly took it. I could see she was not going to make it far without some help, even after we entered the building. I walked her very slowly to the office she needed. She was afraid her husband would not know where she had gone so I walked back to the front doors to let him know she was waiting in the office. I waited for what seemed like a long time. Then, I saw him, slowly approaching the front door of the building. This man was bent and decrepit, walking with a cane. Every step was almost painful for me to watch. I stepped through the doors, back out into the cold, and offered the man my arm. He was just a bit gruff, and declined, indicating he had the cane. I explained to him his wife was waiting at the end of the hall in the office. He thanked me and told me his wife never would have made it without help down the hall. He said he always helped support her if she had to walk more than a few steps. This elderly man was barely able to keep himself upright, and moving as slowly as I’d ever seen someone move, yet he was normally his tottering wife’s support! I walked with him to the office. I chatted with both of the older folks for a few more minutes. As I left, I stopped and quietly urged the receptionist to use a wheelchair to help the woman get back to her car.

I have thought about those folks several times since then and wondered how they are doing. They appeared to be long past the ability to live independently. I hope they are safe and well, and together.

What made me stop and offer my arm to the woman? What made me return to ask her husband if he needed help and then almost physically ache when I saw how difficult it was for him to walk? What made me press the receptionist to help them with a wheelchair? What makes me wonder about them from time to time? It’s a kind of caring concern called empathy. Having compassion for someone and being able to put yourself in their shoes motivates people to stop and help others. Those two elderly people touched my heart. But where does empathy come from? Is it something that we are born with? Is it something we are taught? Does it grow gradually over years, starting small and then building?  


My four boys. They are alike, yet so different.
I’ve discovered a few things about empathy since I started raising kids. One of those things being: how it is acquired. Years ago I might have argued that empathy will not come naturally to children and has to be taught. And then my second son was born. From his toddlerhood on I saw a kid whose heart was tender and caring. He wanted nothing more than to make others happy. If he had a cookie he’d give it away. While I was trying to teach my other children to share, I was trying to teach this little guy to stick up for himself. I remember showing him that he should break his cookie in half and give half away but keep some for himself. He is one of the most caring people I have ever met. But I cannot really take credit. For him, it just seemed to be there from the beginning. My other children did have to be taught empathy and they have all become such caring and wonderful people. It took a little longer for some of the kids to learn to put others’ needs before their own than it did for the others. Being the parent of seven I saw a lot of different personalities and was amazed often at how differently they all learned and needed to be taught. Sometimes I just wanted to “knock” some empathy into them, showing that I myself needed to become quite a bit more empathetic at times.

I said all of the above to finally get to this. One of the characteristics of autism is aloofness, the lack of interest or concern for others. It is also hard for a child with autism to generalize the things they learn. In other words, something a child learns in one situation will not be applied in another setting. So teaching Tate about compassion and empathy has been very hard. I see progress though. He sometimes asks me if I feel better if he knows I have an ache or pain. He has started carrying the laundry hamper down to me when it is full without being told because he knows it makes me happy and it hurts my back to carry that full hamper. He has learned to try to listen to his friends at school when they talk to him because he knows it is important to them. Once in a while Tate offers to share things like cookies with his siblings and that is fairly new. All these things have been taught to him individually. I could not just explain the golden rule to him and expect him to apply it to his life. I have to teach it to him for each scenario I’d like to see him use it in.

Tate will do what he is told usually. He does want to please people. Like most people with autism he is a rule follower. He just has to be told the rules. The hardest part of teaching him to help others is getting him to recognize, without being told, what someone’s need is. Being young is part of it of course. Probably a lot of thirteen-year-old boys would walk right past an elderly woman who could have used their assistance because they do not realize what is needed. But there are many things Tate should have mastered a long time ago that he still struggles to understand.

For example: For years we have worked on the etiquette that surrounds doorways. It just seems to come naturally for his classmates to catch a door that is about to close and then hold it for the next person to grab. I don’t imagine anyone has ever had a door holding lesson for any of those kids. Instead they were taught to be kind and polite as a general rule and have begun to care for those around them and they act on those feelings throughout their day. They would never consider letting a door slam on a classmate. They can think about how that might feel and empathize with the one behind them.

When Tate comes to a door, if another person is holding it, he just squeezes through, never reaching to help with the door. If he approaches the door at the same time as another person he never offers to open it. He waits for them to open it for him. If he did have it open and another person was right behind him he’d just let it fall closed. He wouldn’t wait for them to reach out and grab it and he certainly wouldn’t hold it open for them. It is not that he is UNKIND. It is just that he does not think about being KIND. It does not seem to occur to him. Tate’s teachers and schoolmates have worked with him on this type of etiquette a number of times over the years and so have I. I remind him lately in the mornings before he exits my car to hold the door for the student behind him when he enters the school building. So, he has started trying to calculate his entry into the building so no one is around him at all. He slows his pace if someone else is walking up so he won’t have to try to figure out which of the etiquette rules applies. All these things that everyone else learns easily are still a mystery to him.


Tate might be able to quote the golden rule, but he needs to be taught how it applies in every situation individually. And he won’t just learn it by example. He has to be taught with direct instruction. We can teach him to hold the door for someone, teach him to share a package of cookies with his siblings, teach him to be attentive when his friends at school are talking to him, and teach him to take turns with a video game, but when a new situation comes up, one he has not been taught about before, he probably will not step up and behave as if he cares about anyone’s interest but his own. There will be literally hundreds, maybe thousands of things he will need to be taught. It becomes more evident to me every day.


This morning, my husband and I went out for breakfast. We finished eating and were just visiting when my husband noticed there were a lot of people in the lobby waiting for tables. So, instead of lingering at the table, making others wait longer, we jumped up and gave up our table. That is not something anyone had specifically taught us as children. We do it because we want to be kind and compassionate. We want to treat others the way we would want to be treated. Empathy comes naturally to us now. We have generalized that golden rule to all situations throughout our day. Can you imagine what it would be like if you could not generalize the things you learn in one situation and apply them to another? Can you imagine what it would be like if you had to be taught what was expected of you in every situation you might run into? Can you imagine what it would be like if your family were constantly becoming exasperated with you for not doing the right thing when you do not even know what the right thing to do is? People with autism are not necessarily rude or uncaring. Sometimes they appear rude or uncaring because they just do not know what is expected of them nor can they figure that out based on similar experiences. And so I teach empathy. And I explain empathy. And I have empathy for the one I am teaching empathy to. He is like the elderly lady I helped down the hall in so many ways, and I am like the man. Tate needs my support and guidance to make it a short distance, yet I am wobbly on my own proverbial feet at times. I can drive him right up to the door of empathy and I have to hope others are there to offer him their arm or even a wheelchair and help him make it down the hall. 

You might also like: Kindness and Mistletoe
And.... I wrote another blog post expanding on the door thing: It's not that complicated!

2 comments:

  1. So true. Empathy doesn't come naturally to kids with autism. I bet he learns a lot just watching you. :) You are doing a great job. Parker tends to get mad if his sibling are hurt and crying. He doesn't like it at all.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Bobbi. Tate has a lot of good teachers. I appreciate your encouragement.

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