Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Beyond Empathy

Empathy is a big deal in the Autism community. People write about it, talk about it and hunt for signs of it in their kids. It is the single most discussed emotion or social piece among parents and professionals in the ASD world. Why? Why is empathy so important?

By definition empathy means the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. It is the recognition and projection of emotions. It is our ability, as humans, to feel an emotion, identify it, and accept that others also experience the same emotion in similar situations. It's all about relating to each other.

When Dude was little we realized that he didn't know what he was feeling. He could not identify emotions properly within himself so how could we expect him to identify emotions in others? We had to teach him how his inside feelings related to his outward actions. We had to give the feelings names and teach him that 'feeling' is nothing to be afraid of, it's normal ... we all feel.

Once he understood that, he was able to begin to recognize the outward expression of an inside feeling in others. He was able to empathize, but understanding, empathising, was only the beginning of his emotional and social development. He needed to be taught what to do with that emotional recognition, how to respond appropriately to what he was seeing.

We can all recognize when a house is on fire but if we do nothing with that awareness, if we just stand there and watch the house burn, then the awareness in meaningless. Action, or reaction, to the recognition is what brings us together. It's when we see the house is on fire and respond in a meaningful way that we really begin to connect with each other. Empathy or emotional education is the same way. it's what we do with the knowledge that really makes the difference.

The funny thing is, the more time I spend with students, the more I see that empathy is not just an issue with kids on The Spectrum. Somehow the ability to see each other and respond with respect and compassion is just as absent with 'normal' kids as it is with ASD kids, more so even. At least parents of kids on The Spectrum are aware that this is something that needs to be taught to children whereas many parents of neuro typical kids think that empathy is just something they 'pick up' along their life's journey. After walking through the halls of any junior high school, I can tell you that empathy is definitely not something that kids naturally soak up and understand.

Acts of schoolyard aggression and cyber bullying are on the rise, not because kids don't care but because kids don't know how to care. Most kids are dealing with so many thoughts and emotions that go unidentified, and therefore, untreated that they are drowning in their own emotional cesspool, unaware that other people even exist. If they don't know how to give voice to their own emotions in a constructive way there is no hope of them being compassionate toward the emotions of a peer.

Empathy is more than just understanding someone else's perspective. True, meaningful empathy needs to involve us in a purposeful response to the emotion we see in others. It should spur us into action, it should stir within us the desire to offer aid, support and understanding. It should bring us together, break down barriers and differences, it should strengthen the bond of respect. Empathy should, no, empathy can change our world and how we respond to it.

Empathy is the only human superpower - it can shrink distance, cut through social and power hierarchies, transcend differences, and provoke political and social change.
~Elizabeth Thomas

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