Tuesday, 29 March 2016

How To Teach Empathy

This is one I've been thinking a lot about lately.  And for the hopeful, I'll let you know right now that I don't have an answer.

Thinking about things from someone else's perspective is a challenge.  For someone with autism, it can be even more so.  The inability to recognize a partner's point of view is one of the biggest reasons why autism-neurotypical marraiges fail (probably a significant factor is almost all break-ups, if we're honest).  So I've worked very hard to try and teach both boys to think about how their actions affect others.

Thus far, not feeling a great success on that point.

Alex has limited understanding of his own feelings, which makes teaching him to recognize those feelings in others even harder.  Nathan gets very intently caught up in how he feels (which is developmentally typical for his age) and it's too much to try and remember how what he's doing affects others.

I know that teaching this skill is going to be more like chipping through a rock with a spoon than carving through soft wood with a knife.  Progress will be minimal and require a disproportionate amount of effort.

I've heard some people argue that those with autism shouldn't be forced to adapt to neurotypical expectations.  Instead, neurotypical people should understand that these behaviours are not meant to be offensive and should stop taking offense.  There's a logic in that.  An autistic husband who doesn't see the need to tell his wife that he's going out after work isn't going through the same mental process as someone who is deliberately trying to hide his activities.  But the wife's frustration and pain is real, as well, and to me, marriage means taking the other person's feelings into account.  It's a partnership and a unilateral partnership is impossible.

So this would be my argument: While I can understand the frustration at having to adapt to an essentially alien way of thinking, those on the spectrum must understand that interacting with society has always involved compromise between all parties.  Yes, there does need to be some adaptation on the neurotypical side, acknowledging that some things such as eye contact are difficult for those on the spectrum and can interfere with their ability to follow conversations (for example).  However, those on the spectrum must also understand that the feelings created by their actions are real and cannot be dismissed by logic and rational thought.  No one can tell another person that how they feel is not valid without making the situation worse.  Thus, if a person wishes or is required to interact with others, they must make an effort not to make that interaction negative.  It goes both ways.

Hopefully, with many more years of patient and determined chipping, I can help my boys to find a smoother path through society.

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