Do kids with autism feel empathy?
Are empathy and compassion something we have to teach them?
This subject is fodder for heated debate among parents and professionals and educators right?
Get over yourselves, people! Kids with autism already have empathy. It’s just that we’re looking at it (and at them) the wrong way.
Recently one of my very brilliant writer friends, Jill — (may I call you friend? because that would be an honor since you’re one of the freakin’ funniest, smartest mom bloggers on the internet) — directed my attention to an article written by a doctor about the TV show “Parenthood” and the ability (or inability, as he saw it) of people with autism to empathize with others. His quote:
“Trying to teach a person with autism to empathize is like trying to teach a pig to sing– it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”
was what began a whole hullaballoo of angry, outraged comments from parents like me about our children and this idiot doctor and how dare someone say…. etc. etc.
First off, let me just tell you that I personally love the “never try to teach a pig to sing” quote. My Dad found it when I was a teenager and loved it so much I think he has a placard somewhere on his desk saying just that. He thought it was funny because he could picture this very annoyed pig …
(…. although, come to think of it… how exactly can you tell by a pig’s expression that they are annoyed? … but more on that later)
this pig who was having none of someone’s well-meaning choral instruction. He used to quote it in a mock serious tone whenever someone in our family would encounter a ridiculous situation that could have been upsetting. That quote and my Mom’s line:
“There you go, trying to use logic again…”
in the same circumstances make me crack up every time. So poo on you, Dr. Author of this ridiculous article for using what is in fact an awesome quote in pursuit of your illogical argument!
But I digress…
So what’s really wrong with this article and the ideas we have about autism and empathy?
The fact —
(and yes I will state it that way because I’m the Mom, that’s why– see my six-word memoir)
— is that kids and adults with autism already have empathy.
What well-meaning educators are trying to “teach” is how to translate their words and actions for the rest of society who remain too close-minded to see the depths of empathy and compassion that already exist in each person.
Come on folks, open your minds. Everyone expresses things differently. When are we gonna realize this? What do you think people with autism are capable of? Do you think they’re intelligent? If you have children on the autism spectrum or if you love or work with folks on the spectrum, I’m betting that question just made you sit up a little straighter in your chair and say, “Of course I do!” Well exactly how intelligent are they? How capable? Who falls into what category? And how do you know that’s true?
Have you watched “Wretches and Jabberers” yet? Come on, people, it’s on Netflix now for crying out loud! This is important stuff!
As you watch the men in that movie travel across the world educating people about autism and intelligence, ask yourself what changes for you when you see their ultra-stimmy behavior and the things they struggle with. What are you really thinking when you watch (and hear) the words they type to communicate? Did you expect their language, the thoughts they project to be so poetic?
Is there natural empathy there? Or did they learn it?
Pay close attention to what the characters in “Wretches and Jabberers” say about their own experiences growing up. Look and listen *between the words* for what they are able to communicate to the rest of the world, what they wish for, and what still gets stuck while they are “living in a body they don’t have complete control over.”
As I read through the article Jill posted, and as I perused the comments, I thought about how much I fight to get the rest of the world to understand my children. I just wrote a whole post about advocacy and I am proud to advocate in the best way I know for my family for the rest of my life. But I also thought:
“I’m tired of trying to get the rest of the world to understand something so basic as who is my son and what is his true potential.”
The fact is that no one–
none of us reading, none of the self-proclaimed experts who write articles like the Dr. Singing Pig guy, none of the most well-meaning and loving people in our lives–
can ever truly know another’s potential or what is going on inside them. We have to take a leap of faith.
How do I know that children with autism feel empathy?
Because I don’t look for signs of it in the ways that everyone else does. I see it in the way Alex leans on me even when he doesn’t want to be hugged. I see it in the way he responds to other children struggling or expressing what he concludes is pain (screaming or crying or subtle ways of acting out). I see it in the way the kids at the residential treatment facility interact with me differently because they know I don’t judge them or make assumptions about them. I see it in the spaces in between every other interaction. It is so obvious to me that I really have trouble understanding why everyone in this whole world isn’t able to pick up on it. It annoys me more than anything else and frankly, I’m tired of screaming about it.
My response to the comments on the “Parenthood” and empathy article:
“Yes. Exactly. My pigs LOVE to sing… “
If you don’t believe me, open your mind to the possibilities, assume the things that society tells you are “missing” in a person with autism are really there, only they may not be expressed in ways you expect or easily understand.
Then when you find
desire and resiliency,
go tell the rest of the world to stop trying to educate and change the pigs and just listen to them sing.