LEARNING EMPATHY WITH
My son is fifteen years old and has Asperger’s
syndrome. As other parents will know, most children with an
Autism Spectrum Disorder will have a lot of trouble seeing things
from another person’s perspective. Examples? Daniel has an obsession
with mobile phones and just loves to talk about them for hours.
He has a lot of trouble understanding that others will quickly get
bored and can fly into a rage or simply not speak to that person
If his sister is watching her favorite tv program, he’ll just stroll
in and change the channel. I don't believe it is deliberately obnoxious
behavior – he just can’t grasp that she could possibly like that
program because he doesn't.
Lack of friends
As a parent, I desperately want Daniel to learn
empathy for others. He doesn't. really have good friends as it is,
and it is easy to see why people often find people with Aspergers
syndrome aloof, abrupt, uncaring and selfish. The sad part is that
I know he really wants friends, to fit in, to be part of the happy
banter of growing teenagers. But his inability to empathize with
others is a major reason he drives away the very people he wants
to be close to.
I'm a firm believer in acknowledging you may have a disorder, but
that just means you have to work harder to compensate for it. I
take every opportunity I can to help Daniel see things from inside
someone else's shoes. Along with mobile phones, he is obsessed with
soapies. So I watch them with him, and we make a game out of guessing
how the various actors feel when others are unpleasant to them.
When Daniel does something hurtful toward his
sister, I go with a scenario where a similar thing has been done
to him by someone bigger than he is. I keep gently reminding Daniel
that there are lots of rules (and he loves rules!) in how we get
along with people. I say he will have to work harder than some other
kids but that he is very intelligent and I believe he can do it.
The long road to empathy with others
Do these strategies work? We are seeing an improvement
in his behavior Last year, he was suspended from school when he
vandalized a teacher’s car. He earnestly believed that the teacher
had been unfair in the classroom, and scratching the car was apparently
a just punishment. He now accepts that this must have been very
frustrating for the teacher, as he himself was very angry when his
sister bumped his computer off the desk and ruined the hard drive.
Being able to appreciate the pain of others, and linking to situations
of your own pain, are simply taken for granted by everyone. But
I know what a huge cognitive leap this is for Daniel, and I like
to think that our strategies are paying off.
Daniel is desperate to make friends, so we are
currently working on listening skills. I try to give him concrete
examples of friendship skills:
• Find out what the other person’s hobbies are
• Make sure you don't talk more than 50% of the time
• Don't talk about mobile phones for more than a few minutes
• Watch for signs of boredom ie. lack of eye contact, fidgeting.
We are seeing small signs of improvement. Daniel will let his sister
talk for a few sentences before he interrupts her nowadays, and
is starting to appreciate that others can share the air space.
uncertain future with asperger's
As parents, we are worried about Daniel's future
– will he hold down work, get into relationships, be happy and independent?
All we can do take the focus off worrying and concentrate on helping
him learn these vital life skills.
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