Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this; the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else's feelings.-Taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
We continually hear from different forms of media how autistic people are not empathetic. Time and again a reference will be made about how some autistic people are unable to understand and process the feelings and thoughts of another person due to their autism. Some say that this lack of empathy towards others makes them detached, unable to connect with others.
A few weeks ago I came across an article by Ellen Notbohm, titled "Teach empathy to your child with autism -- start with saying sorry". While I have the utmost respect for her as a writer, mother and woman, I strongly disagree with her column.
In it she states the following:
To issue a sincere apology, a child must first understand why the apology is necessary. Learning to recite the words 'I'm sorry' isn't enough. It doesn't help the child understand what he did and the consequences it had on another person. All children have elements of selfishness, defensiveness and impulsivity to their personalities. In children with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these elements may be magnified. Empathy is learned thinking and learned behavior; consistent teaching of the words and actions of empathy and apology will help them take root. It will come in increments over a long period of time.
She goes on to say:
Explaining to your child what he did that requires an apology is more likely to be effective when conveyed in an informative, not punitive, tone of voice. Taking a problem-solving rather than castigating approach preserves your child's fragile dignity and makes it more likely that he will learn.
You can read her full article here.
I get her point, I really do. All kids can learn, even autistic kids, and therefore, teaching them to say I'm sorry when need be is completely possible. But, here's the thing; this is great information when dealing with neurotypical kids and high functioning children on the autism spectrum. However, this approach won't always work with a low functioning, non-verbal autistic child. Does this mean he/she will grow up without empathy? Does this mean that they completely lack this emotion because a) they don't show it and b) they don't say I'm sorry?
In her article, Notbohm states: "To issue a sincere apology, a child must first understand why the apology is necessary." Exactly! When my son was a toddler, there was no way that I was able to teach him to say I'm sorry, or give him time outs if he "misbehaved". These types of approaches to discipline and teach him right from wrong did not work because he just didn't get it. Believe me, I tried.
He was non-verbal and often not connected with what was going on around him other than what he was focusing on at that moment, such as scripted play, stimming, watching TV, lining up shampoo bottles, etc.
The thought of teaching Emilio to say "I'm sorry" in an effort to build and develop more empathy never crossed my mind. My only concern at that time was getting him to communicate any way he could.
Today, if you would meet Emilio, you'd say that he is the most sensitive kid you ever met. If I should so much as stub my toe, he'll run up to me and say "Mommy are you OK? Does it hurt? Let me see?" And I'll have to show him that I am indeed OK. He never did this as a baby or as a young child.
Even his teachers tell me that he is sensitive to the students around him. If a child is having a meltdown, he'll try to help them, to comfort them. A few weeks ago I picked up Emilio earlier from school. Another child started to cry because she too wanted to be picked up by her mommy and go home. Emilio went to her and said "Don't cry, you'll be going home soon. It's okay, don't cry." He was trying as best as he could to calm her down and comfort her.
So how did he get to be so empathetic? It wasn't by teaching him to say I'm sorry. It was by showing him unconditional love, making him feel safe during his meltdowns, ensuring he understood that I was always there for him and helping him through difficult moments through patience and kindness.
He freely says I'm sorry now even when he hasn't done anything wrong. He wants to please everyone around him.
I deal with families with non -verbal autistic children and not one is teaching them to say "I'm sorry". They are concentrating on having eye contact with their child; they are working on communication skills so they can verbalize their basic needs like "I want water". Not one family is worried about their child growing up without empathy.
I do believe that every child should be raised knowing the difference between right and wrong, about sharing and showing compassion and kindness towards others, regardless if they are autistic or not. But it is wrong to state that autistic kids must learn to be empathetic. This implies that they lack empathy to begin with. I take great offence to that implication and I'm here to say that autistic children (and adults) are as empathetic as anyone else.
They may have difficulty in expressing the emotion, but it certainly doesn't equate to them not feeling it.