My daughter studies a picture of a boy sitting alone as a group of children play together beside him. The boy looks as if he might be crying. “How do you think the boy feels,” her teacher asks. “Sad,” Erin replies.
Since diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at the age of two Erin,18, has consistently reviewed picture boards and social stories to recognize and read the range of human emotions and to learn how certain words and actions affect others. While autism is a complex neurological disorder, the therapies applied to connect Erin to the world around her are pretty straightforward.
My autistic daughter needs to be taught to see beyond herself
Through rigorous repetition these exercises have helped her to see beyond herself and to understand how important it is to make eye contact, to ask ‘how are you,’ to share, to treat others how you want to be treated.
These are lessons neurotypical children cover intensely in their early years, but soon fall by the wayside as academic, athletic and social pressures intensify. They are intangibles – difficult to measure and quantify, challenging to teach and prioritize on a school curriculum. The ‘results’ have no place on a college application or resume.
As our country unravels today, it is clear we can not afford to leave the task of teaching children to think beyond themselves solely to kindergarten and special ed programs. Children are not born knowing how to empathize any more than they are born knowing how to complete a quadratic equation or hit a backhand crosscourt. My daughter’s hard work has taught me that behavior can be modified and empathy learned.
Neurotypical kids need to learn to be empathetic
The work of raising her three younger brothers, however, has highlighted that a force far stronger than autism comes into play when teaching typically developing children to think outside their own experience. As I see on a daily basis, all four of my children require consistent reminding in how it feels to walk in someone else’s shoes.
My teen-age sons often find it difficult to be with their sister in public. Erin speaks loudly. She does not follow the norms of social etiquette. She is prone to meltdowns if denied a coveted item in a store or if a setting is too loud or crowded. I understand their discomfort.
The last thing the boys, and most teens, want is to call attention to themselves in this most unusual fashion. Erin’s lack of impulse control, safety and self awareness put her and anyone with her in an exceptionally vulnerable position. And as Brene Brown well knows, we are all averse to vulnerability – for good reason.
As I watch the boys wrestle with embarrassment in a grocery store, restaurant or worst case scenario the confines of public transportation, I know their adolescent self-consciousness is only compounded by a social precedent that expects and applauds strength and conformity.
While the status quo might see difference as a weakness, I try to help my sons understand that their sister is our greatest strength. Erin has forced them to move outside themselves, to appreciate what it means to struggle through life’s everyday tasks, to understand how it feels to be vulnerable – and to feel empathy. Though they live them every day, these are lessons not easily absorbed.
If there is any hope for our children and our nation to ever think and feel from another’s perspective, we must work vigilantly to create a more open minded, accepting and nurturing culture. We must embrace and celebrate diversity and we must not mistake sensitivity for weakness, and see strength in compassion.
Empathy needs to be a dinnertime conversation
As parents we must make empathy the topic of dinner and conversations in the car. We must discuss the content of our children’s social media, snap chats, news headlines and books they are assigned in school. We can never stop discerning right from wrong or helping them to imagine what it is to live inside someone else’s skin. We can not afford to leave the lessons of Atticus Finch in the courtroom, classroom or playground.
I will never pretend to know how it feels to be Black in America today – or to be a parent that has all the answers. But I do know what it is to look for people and places that welcome difference, to fight for acceptance, inclusion and respect and I know the fight, the real work starts at home – and never really ends.
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Eileen Flood O’Connor is a writer and mother of four, the oldest of whom has an autism spectrum disorder. She writes often about parenting and the joys and challenges of raising a special needs child alongside three ‘lively’ boys.