by Kim Wombles
“Empathy is one of those skills autistic children typically lack; this boy wasn’t supposed to be aware of his teachers’ frustration.”
–“The New Face of Autism Therapy”
The idea that autistics lack empathy is one of the more pervasive myths out there, shared by some parents, far too many professionals, and the general public, and it’s dead wrong. What some autistics may lack is awareness, but if they are aware of what’s going on, they can and do indeed feel empathy. They may react differently than socially accepted ways of conveying empathy, but it shows an appalling lack of neurotypical understanding of autistic people to continue to put this myth forward. It is this reality that needs to be expressed and the lack of empathy myth that needs to be corrected: autistics may express empathy differently and people should be aware of that. Talk about a lack of theory of mind. Why is it that this lack is so often apparent in “neurotypicals”?
This one sentence obviously stuck out enough, out of the long article regarding research into designing robotic therapists for autistic children that I’ve led with it, but there was much about the article that I found troubling. As a science fiction geek, I think that robotic research is fascinating and important work, so it isn’t the idea of robots themselves that bothers me. It’s some of the ideas expressed in the article.
“Experts debate the cause (the increase may simply stem from a greater awareness of the disorder) but agree that there is now a shortage of qualified therapists.”
Really? This is so general as to be useless. And the article will go on to perpetuate the myth that only “qualified therapists” can help an autistic child improve. But let’s take this at face value: there are a shortage of experts to work with autistic children. Why would robots be better than training more people?
“And therapy is work. To achieve results, a single child can spend 40 hours per week moving from one specialist to the next. ”
Perhaps. But not necessarily. Most people can’t afford that kind of intensive therapy, most don’t have access to it. What do parents do when they can’t get ABA or any of the other “therapies”? I believe that many parents dig into the books that are out there on treatments like ABA, floorplan, etc., and modify them for home use. Many parents do the work themselves and see their children make tremendous progress. Yes, I’ve also seen this self-education lead parents down woo trails and have them engage in dubious therapies and treatments. But, I’ve also seen that parents with money to burn are as likely to piss it away on dubious therapists with their woo treatments.
The main point here is that this idea that a child must spend 40 hours moving from paid specialist to paid specialist in order to grow and progress is not based on scientific evidence, but it’s a good money making machine. Autistic children need patient, deliberate, child-guided interventions that work at mitigating their weaknesses while fostering their strengths.
Much of the article is gauged to create a sense of need, of urgency to get autistic children to a therapist, posthaste. This creates a market for the “automated therapist”: ”Automated therapists would not only increase the amount of available therapy but would also make it available wherever a family happened to live.”
Again, it isn’t the idea of robots that disturbs me. Nor is the idea of using assistive technology. What bothers me is the idea that parents could in the future assume that their autistic child’s best hope of integrating into society comes from spending 40 hours a week with a robot instead of out in the community interacting with people.
Parents already abrogate too much of their responsibility in general with their children, letting schools, daycares, and other individuals be in charge of their child’s growth and development. Turning it all over to a robot seems foolish at best.
What needs to happen is training for parents by qualified professionals on how to work with their children to provide appropriate consistency in discipline, to understand what are developmentally appropriate expectations. And I’m not talking about just parents of autistic children. Far too many parents today lack key critical thinking skills as well as knowledge regarding discipline and the need for consistency in how children are raised. All children need clear guidelines that are consistently enforced. All children need one-on-one instruction and interaction with adults. Television, video games, and computer time aren’t going to do that.
Handing over our critical responsibilities to other people and potentially, in the future, to robots is not a good idea. Have we gotten that lazy that we forget the very real truth that parenting children is work, our most important work, and that it requires a commitment of our time and our attention?
About the Author: Kim Wombles is the mother of three children on the autism spectrum. This piece first appeared on her blog Countering…, and is reprinted here by permission.