- intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
I really don’t get all the “debate” over whether people with autism lack empathy or lack the ability to understand how others are feeling. More than anything, from where I sit, I know my son understands. He’s no Spock. He is not aloof or any more self-centered than any other child. He identifies with and experiences the feelings of others. He is often engaged in provoking those feelings. Let me give you an example.
The boy is laying on the bed, playing an app on the iPad. For 10 minutes or so, he’s been engaged in self-talk. Husband is down the hall. I settle into a chair. Calmly, I sit down to write, to read and to correspond. I connect to the Internet, begin to read and then?
“AAAAAA-OOOOO!” comes at max volume, from my son, breaking all sound barriers. My nerves feel like they’ve been dipped in a fryer. I make it clear this is a “no.”
“Sorry, mommy. Give mommy a kiss!”
“Why must you scream?” I ask rhetorically.
“Give mommy a kiss,” he repeats, hugging me.
“I love you. Please do not scream.” (Yes, I am a sucker for the hug and he knows it.)
This exchange alone shows many different things. First, he knows the behavior in which he was engaged was not acceptable socially – between him and me. He observed me and knew my attention was elsewhere. He violated this social understanding in order to get my attention and caused me some distress. Understanding that distress, he tried to alleviate it – for both of us- by giving me a “kiss”.
Every single one of these steps involves understanding emotion in himself and others. It involved actively looking for my emotional reaction. It involved understanding my reaction and trying to change my emotions from a negative to a positive with a kiss.
Since autism manifests itself differently in every household, I would not dare to generalize my own experiences with that of the autism community. Maybe I don’t have enough of an understanding of the debate to even mention it here.
Perhaps there are lots of little automaton, robotic ASD children running around out there somewhere. I’ve never seen it, though. Never heard of any child with autism acting in utter disconnect with their parents’ feelings or the emotions of others around them. Off and on – yes. As a general rule – no. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.
For me, with my child, his screaming is the latest of his attention-seeking, control behavior. Yes, he does want attention. This does not make him lack understanding of how others feel. He is an attempted manipulator, yes. And to be manipulative? Don’t we have to have an understanding of how someone else will react emotionally?
We’re going through this screaming/yelling thing daily. It’s not an angry scream or a meltdown scream. It’s a “I’m-being-loud-to-be-the-center-of-attention-scream/yell.” Whether I am on the phone, on the computer, or talking to someone in person, if my full attention is not directed to him and what he is doing, the scream is put into play. Is this a lack of empathy or simple manipulation, i.e., a calculated risk (punishment for naughty behavior) versus reward (getting attention) ploy? I know it’s the latter, in this household.
It is prevalent enough that, recently, the behavioral therapy team has put time-outs into play whenever there is yelling. Hoo-rah – because my nerves are frayed! However, the way these programs work, the child escalates the behavior before it (hopefully) extinguishes. This means – he’s getting mad and he’s getting frustrated because someone is telling him he can’t yell as a means of interrupting or being the center of attention.
I am a very lucky mom. My son is not – at all – much of an aggressor. If we have to choose between being a fighter or a lover, he is, most definitely, a lover. That’s why, whenever there is an escalation in a program to extinguish a behavior, he engages in a cross between a very stinky and a very funny behavior.
Any time he gets a “no” from one of his therapists, he gets right up in front of their faces, and gives them, what they call the “tense” face. He wants to make sure the therapists look at how mad his face is when he does it. So, he will try to force eye contact right up in their faces and turn his head from side to side to make sure they are seeing it. Yet, he doesn’t talk and doesn’t hit. He knows this non-verbal communication is serving the purpose of telling them, he’s angry. He’s specifically reading their faces for a reaction.
If he is super mad, he will give “the claw”. This is where he will make a clawing hand gesture with his hand and put his hand right in the therapist’s face. It’s really not very nice but almost…amusing because 97.5 percent of the time, he does not actually make contact with anyone. It is just a threat.
Even luckier for me is that he does not engage in this behavior with me. As mom, I am exempt. I’m not saying he hasn’t tried, but the decibel level he gets in return from me, stops that stuff in a hurry. (Plus, I have that special position of mama to back me).
I could really give a hundred other examples…
I’m not starting a debate. I’m not into forcing my opinion on anyone else. In my little corner of the autism world, this is my observation with my son. I don’t see this “lack of empathy” as an issue in our household. Do you see it in yours?