Several books I’ve read have talked about how children on the Autism spectrum tend to have issues with, or lack, emotions and empathy. So I began to do a little research.
So what is empathy exactly? Well, the American Heritage Medical Dictionary defines empathy as: Direct identification with, understanding of, and vicarious experience of another person's situation, feelings, and motives. In other words, understanding and feeling other’s emotions through oneself. This means, if I see someone in pain, I too can feel that pain to some extent. However, people with Autism tend to lack this character.
Let me give you another example. Kruz was running through the house and slammed into a door facing. As he began to cry in obvious pain Konner turned to him and began to yell in a high-pitched scream. Every time Kruz grasped for a breath Konner would imitate his sounds. It’s as if Konner is amused by the sounds he is making.
We had some trouble with this last year in school because he would mock children when they would cry. The staff members didn’t understand how he could do this when a child was in pain. They felt like he was making fun of the other students. However, it is just a lack of empathy.
One of the best explanations I’ve found was from John Elder Robison’s book “Look Me in the Eye”. In fact he has a whole chapter dedicated to empathy. He talks about the “inappropriate expressions” that he had during his childhood. He explains that as a child he remembers his mother and a friend talking about a child who had been hit by a train and killed. As they were talking about it he began to smile. The friend turned to ask if he thought this was funny because of the smile on his face. He knew it was not, but couldn’t put into words why he was smiling. He said, “I didn’t feel joy or happiness…it was hard to figure out exactly what I did feel. And I felt powerless to react any different.”
He goes on to explain that he had to figure these feelings out himself because the therapist he was forced to see didn’t understand either. “I didn’t really know (the mother or the child), so there was no reason to feel joy or sorrow. Here is what went through my mind:
Someone got killed.
Wow! I’m glad I didn’t get killed.
I’m glad all my friends are okay.
He must have been a pretty dumb kid, playing on the train tracks.
I would never get run over by a train like that.
I’m glad I’m okay.
And then he smiled with relief. He knew everything was going to be okay for him and his family.
I’m not saying this is what happens all the time, but when we don’t understand what the child is feeling we can’t really punish them for their reactions. We do have to help them control those feelings though.
The book Engaging Autism, by Stanley I Greenspan, M.D.; and Serena Wieder, Ph.D. talks about the “ability to figure out how others feel, to take another person’s perspective” also known as theory of mind. Basically this is putting yourself in another’s shoes.
When something like this happens we try to explain to Konner that it’s not okay to mock others in pain. We also try to tell him that they are suffering and need to be comforted, not laughed at.
There are some other things we’ve tried in the past that seem to work some, but it is still a work in progress. We work with pictures of different facial expressions and emotions. We try to work through what the child is feeling.
The book “1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorders” by Ellen Notbohm and Veronica Zysk is a great tool for any parent or teacher of an autistic child. It has steps to help with empathy and emotions.
One recommendation is that you use feelings and emotions in everyday conversation. A few examples would be to ask, “Are you feeling nervous? Are you angry about something? How does that make you feel? Then discuss those feelings. You may also ask how they think others feel. Also work on what physical characteristics go along with different emotions, such as eyebrows raised or narrowed, crinkled noses, etc.
For those who are technologically inclined, iPhone, iPad, and iPods have some great apps for autism. One that can help with emotions is called Autism Xpress. This will bring up pictures of facial expressions and identify them with their emotions. This can be a great tool to supplement the other things we’ve talked about here.
This is something that we’re still working on, but with a little at a time I can see some progress. He can tell me what someone who is crying is feeling. He knows that it is a bad choice to laugh at them. But he still does it. We just have to keep working with him.
Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.