Extinguishing Behaviors and Empathy.

em·pa·thy [em-puh-thee]

  1. 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.

Haven't seen these kids in the 'hood...

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.

Lover, not fighter...

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.

The "Claw"

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?


About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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10 Responses to Extinguishing Behaviors and Empathy.

  1. I love this post because it really gets at some of the things I have wondered about my own Little Miss. The doctors continue to tell me that Little Miss is “too social to be on the spectrum.” And indeed, I agree with them in many ways.

    Little Miss shares things that delight her with me (and other trusted adults). She seeks my attention (in both good and bad ways — just like T). She is learning (albeit *much* more slowly than her peers) when something is not acceptable.

    Yet, I have notes from doctors that describe “PDD-like symptoms” and goals on the IEP to help Little Miss begin to acknowledge her peers (she does not engage her peers for more than a second or two unless specifically coached to do so). I have verbal communications with professionals who have been in the field, seen autism, and told me to get Little Miss re-evaluated (ah, but to have those conversations on paper!)

    I honestly don’t know whether Little Miss falls on the spectrum. Perhaps the “PDD-like symptoms” are just developmental delays and will work themselves out with lots of therapy and hard work. Perhaps she’s eventually decide that she wants to be with her peers and start engaging them. Who knows? But I think a big part of my doubt is the statement that *all* children on the spectrum lack empathy. In my heart, I just don’t think that is true. But then again, like you Karen, I am operating from my own part of the world, with my own experiences, and I have NOT seen what others see. I expect that to that end, the comments on this post will be VERY enlightening!

  2. Jen says:

    I don’t think our kids necessarily lack empathy, I just think some have trouble processing emotions and come off as not caring. I know that is the case with K. I know she FEELS for others, but she has a really hard time expressing those feelings, so she ends up turning inward. That is where the lack of empathy, imo, comes from.

    K, unfortunately, is very aggressive. Age is making it more and more difficult to deal with this behavior, and she has started saying some pretty horrible things, as well as acting out.

    Our experiences are so unique to our kids and families. Autism just doesn’t affect anyone the same, it would seem.

  3. Grace says:

    I’m still trying to figure this one out in my house. As my son has gotten older, he has become less Vulcan-like. I know he feels stuff, but for me it’s a question of whether his feelings are appropriate for a given situation.

    When he gets in trouble for something, he will say he’s sorry but I don’t think he really feels sorry. He will yell it or growl it at me because he has learned that this is what he must do to resolve a situation, and he just wants the whole thing to be over with.

    Or when he sees me cry, he will sigh in exasperation and say something like “Are you crying AGAIN?!?” My take on this is that my display of emotion makes him feel uncomfortable or annoyed. Is that empathy? My sister once told me when her NT daughter (who is 3 months older than my son) sees her cry, she will bring her a tissue. I’m certain the thought of bringing me a tissue has never occurred to my son.

    So, yeah. There’s something going on inside there, but I’m not sure what it is exactly or what we should call it.

    That’s just me.

  4. Tam says:

    Grace it sounds like bewilderment to me 🙂

    When I was a kid I really didn’t have emotional reactions to anything. At some point I disconnected my emotions completely (or just never started with them, I’m not sure which, I don’t remember before 7 or so). In any case, I could never figure out why people cried at movies, why they got upset over stupid little things that didn’t matter at all…

    I was bewildered by all the emotions going on around me. I cared about everyone I just didn’t understand the histrionics at all. I did have a lot of frustration and upset meltdowns but those are pretty much the only emotions I had, and they would always get bad enough I’d end up tossing my cookies.

    In any case something happened when I was 16 and a bunch of emotions came flooding in, I was completely overwhelmed, and I’ve spent the last 16 years trying to fight my way up out of the torrent and figure out how to get a handle on all of them. I’m convinced that I probably shut them out as a kid because they were just too overwhelming. If I had to wager a guess I’d say there are two types of autistics, the ones that have shut their emotions out as a defense mechanism, and the ones that are constantly overwhelmed… I just happened to experience both.

  5. Amanda says:

    In my experience people with autism will feel the same empathy as anyone else when they see someone getting hurt, even if they can’t express it as an NT does. But they might not realize how saying “Are you crying AGAIN?!?” can be hurtful to the other person. (Just because someone has autism it doesn’t mean they can’t be nasty on purpose.)

    But “no empathy”… that’s reserved for a particular mental disorder which has nothing to do with autism.

  6. Lana Rush says:

    This is a tough one for me. I honestly believe that since autism is so “unique to the individual” that to say that people with autism do not exhibit empathy in a blanket statement fashion is wrong. Just like saying, “All men are pigs!” is not a true statement. I think lumping a group of people into a particular category (in this case, autism) and slapping a label on them (do not display empathy) will never truly describe the group as a whole. Every person with autism is just so unique that I don’t think a blanket statement will ever be a correct fit.

    As for my situation, my Bird definitely wants us to know when she is unhappy with us, much like your son. She has a “tense face” of her own and while she is nonverbal, we all can read her loud and clear! And she can unfortunately be quite aggressive in getting her point across.

    And she most certainly wants all our attention on her and will do anything to garner it, even if she knows what she is doing will only get her negative attention. In her case, any attention is better than no attention at all. And like you said, the best manipulators are the ones who know exactly what to do so that we will react in exactly the way they want us to. (yes, I admit it… my daughter is better at using behavioral therapy on me than I am on her!)

    While my daughter may never come wipe my eyes when I’m crying, I do think that she shows an understanding of the feelings of people around her. I just think that right now, at age 5, she truly believes the world totally revolves solely around her and her needs/wants. And, in my opinion, that is not anything more than a typical trait of all kiddos of preschool/early elementary age.

  7. Jackie says:

    Lack of Empthy.. thats a myth. Not displaying what I’m feeling, ya.. I do that.
    To do my job I shut out most of the signals I receive to the best of my ability, but I still subconsciously mirror peoples emotions and expressions. For example, Thursday/Fridays I work evenings, and almost everyone that comes though is tired. And I find those shifts incredibly tiring but as soon as I am away from everyone. I am not longer tried.
    I learned to put up mental shields up as a young teen. I drop them, and I get overwhelmed and fast. I will do it around close friends though, but not so much around strangers.

    Side note: I love watching peoples expressions, it can make my job sooo much more fun. Example: I had a pen at work, that looked like a pencil. Watching people expressions as they puzzle out that I wasn’t asking them to sign with a pencil, that was priceless. (Even got the supervisor as a bonus)

  8. ElizOF says:

    This is highly informative and the thought that ran through my head is… Do you tell the therapists what these behaviors are? You know, the claw and up close stern look? I ask because I wonder if they would perceive them differently, if you didn’t give them prior warning that he doesn’t do anything more … I was thinking about that… Anyway, you are right that there is emotion and empathy and the full range of other emotions exhibited… Thank you for sharing this… 🙂

  9. Aspie Mom says:

    Great post.
    Autistics are angered by this claim. Most see it as therapists’ very UNempathetic projection of their own reactions to us, onto our behavior.
    Great explanation of how this is a misnomer, and is a misleading use of a technical term here

  10. I loved this post!! I’ve been really interested reading about the subject recently (especially the comment section of a recent autism directory blog post).

    All I can really comment on is my own son. He definitely has empathy. I know some people might say that realizing that I’m upset is more self preservation than anything else because if I’m not well, then I can’t look after him properly, but I’ve also seen him empathize with his baby sister. He’s often gone up to her when she’s been crying and stroked her head. He’s also helped her climb up onto places she couldn’t reach but wanted to (I can’t leave them alone for a second!) and he has (once or twice) shared a coveted toy when he could see she really wanted it too.

    He definitely has empathy, I just think that he doesn’t always know how to respond or what to do with the (emphatic?) information he receives, or maybe sometimes he doesn’t always feel the need to respond “appropriately” (if that makes sense)..

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