Yesterday, my son refused to go back to school because he says he no longer trusts the school. Why would he say that? Because we convinced him that everything would be okay if he returned. But it wasn’t okay; he arrived to band to discover they were having a study hall. They are transitioning from the fall band (during marching band season) and the bands that exist the rest of the year. I am supposed to be notified of changes. Yes, I realize he needs to learn to deal with some changes, and I think he probably would have tolerated this on a different day. But not yesterday.
You may be thinking, “What does this have to do with empathy?” I will tell you that it has everything to do with empathy, and it reinforces my view that autism researchers and scientists are the ones who lack empathy.
Many of them go around saying that autistics lack empathy because they do not recognize nonverbal cues. They give examples about how the control group of children was able to identify the emotion in the same situation. Well, put an autistic in a room and ask neurotypicals what emotion he or she is expressing, and they won’t be able to tell you either. No wonder autistics are so outraged. The scientists are all focused on how autistics lack empathy and need to learn the nonverbal cues. What about the neurotypicals learning some of the autistic’s nonverbal cues?
I recently attended a seminar for nurses where one of the subjects covered was autism. I should have known better than to attend. I thought I would learn something, and I suppose I did. I had many issues with the way some information was conveyed and was less than quiet about it. One of the big issues was when the lecturer mentioned that autistics lack empathy. Of course, I argued with him that my son absolutely has empathy.
The lecturer explained to me that it is possible for some autistics to learn empathy. He explained that yes, autistics can learn the nonverbal cues for emotions. He explained that neurotypicals (not sure he used that word. but anyways) can put themselves in the place of the other person. He explained that this is truly what empathy means. He went on to say that an autistic could not truly put himself or herself in the place of another person. Well, isn’t that exactly what the scientists are unable to do? Their point of reference is neurotypical. The scientists are unable to put themselves in the place of an autistic. I think, however, that an autistic can put himself or herself in the place of another autistic.
Now, let’s circle back to yesterday at band. The teacher probably thought she was giving the kids a break by giving them a study hall. She may have even let them talk or play games during that period because hey, why not? Isn’t that what all kids want to do? They became loud, but she probably thought, “Who cares?” Apparently, my son did not have an outburst, so no one realized that it bothered him. I haven’t heard from the band teacher, so let’s assume he did something like put his head down or chew on his shirt.
Either of those actions would probably be ignored in that situation if the teacher doesn’t understand his nonverbal communication. It is not intuitive to her that this is what he is communicating, so she lacks what the researchers call “cognitive empathy.” However, she does have “affective empathy” for my son. She cares about him. In fact, she has communicated she will do anything to help make band successful for him. If she had known it bothered him, she would have probably handled it right away. But she didn’t have cognitive empathy, so she didn’t know.
If people could put themselves in his place, they would realize that chaos or change causes stress. That day at school, it was absolutely chaotic, with kids “throwing toilet paper everywhere.” This is what he reported in complete disgust, and I am proud of him. It sounds to me like he is more civilized than the other kids at school!
When I posted these events on my blog, I received some responses from parents and autistics. Specifically, on Twitter, one friend tweeted that she had read it to her Aspie husband: “DAMN. We feel awful for him, would not have handled it so well. Kudos to him!” In another tweet, she said, “Hubby was picturing rocking before I got there!” Sounds like her husband was able to put himself in my son’s place. I think that is called empathy.
The school has expressed that what occurred was not okay and kids got in trouble. They also expressed that my son does not need to participate in anything that makes him uncomfortable. I appreciate that, but I have asked them to help him avoid the chaos and noise. I have also repeatedly asked them to notify me of change. Really what they need to do is try to see the world as he does.
I am always told that he needs to work on communicating when he is uncomfortable. We are working on this, but I don’t think it is fair that the main focus is always on him learning the meaning of nonverbal communication from neurotypicals and how to communicate “appropriately.” What about the neurotypicals learning a bit about his nonverbal communication and his way of communicating? I personally think that it is the neurotypicals who need to work on their empathy for autistics.
I pledge to work on this every day. How about you?
About the Author: AspieSide is the mother of a 14-year-old son with Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. A version of this piece first appeared on her blog, The Aspie Side of Life, and is reprinted here by permission.