So empathy is a hard thing for people with autism to understand, or least, the way we neuro typical people see empathy and feeling for another person. It is not due to insensitivity or cruelty, but rather due to a different way of seeing the world. I have noticed with Michael that as he gets older it is easier in some ways to communicate his frustration, angst and anxiety in himself and towards another person, but harder to feel sympathy for the other person in question. For example, he will laugh at a friend who is struggling or feeling embarrassed if it doesn’t fit in with what the friend is supposed to be doing, yet doesn’t see the many struggles he has socially fitting in or people that may look at him strangely due to social challenges of how to talk and engage with other people.
Michael has also reflected back to me times I have struggled in being more understanding and forgiving, by telling me he is doing the best that he can when I have lost my temper with him. It has reminded me that I need to be a good mirror to Michael of not only how to do things right, but when I make a mistake, how I can correct myself and show him what NOT to do. With Michael’s help, I have found 5 ways to show empathy and teach love. I have shown some to Michael and he has shown others to me.
- Listen to what the other person is saying: This sounds obvious, but what I really mean is to REALLY listen to the tone they are using when they talk about things, to the words they are not saying that will sometimes slip out unconsciously. You bring up an event your child does not want to go to and they begin to swear or get angry or insult. The child obviously feels scared or threatened, but does not know how to show this. You immediately get angry. Try to take a deep breath, and ask them to explain as best they can.
- Watch their body language: Kids and adults when uncomfortable, will carry themselves a certain way, shoulders more tense, hunched, maybe moving a lot, fidgeting. This is a sign of stress. Wait and let them find the space to tell you their thoughts.
- Show them love when they are being difficult: This is easily the hardest of the five to do. When someone is being rude, insensitive or cruel, it is hard to love them. We feel betrayed and angry, but acceptance is essential so they know we are there. Michael and I have hurt each other in anger, but now are both learning to forgive one another so we can move forward and make progress.
- Put yourself in the person’s shoes : This is hard for our kids with autism who have a difficult time with abstract thinking. Even for those of us who do not have autism, we are sometimes stuck in a pattern of self-pity and personal stress so we can’t see past that when we are angry at someone or jealous of them. Make an effort to get past your own negative feelings.
- Practice caring scenarios with your child and see how you can reach out to others: This is a good exercise that you can do with your child in order to teach them how to reach out to others who are struggling, scared, and alone. Do this yourself as a a parent too. Give to charities, help the needy in your community, and make helping others a major part of your family life.
Exceptional Parents, how do you teach empathy and love to your Exceptional Children? What has and has not worked? Remember, trial and error is part of life for all of us. Teach your child to learn from their mistakes, and not beat themselves up. Only when they (and you), can let go of past failures in personal relationships, can embrace a happier and healthier future. Until next time.
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