My son refused to go back to school today because he says he no longer trusts the school. Why would he say that? Because we convinced him that everything would be okay if he returned yesterday after the nightmare that occurred Friday. It wasn’t completely okay, he arrived to band to discover they were having a study hall. They are transitioning from the fall band (during marching band season) and the bands that exist the rest of the year. I am supposed to be notified of changes. Yes I realize he needs to learn to deal with some changes and I think he probably would have tolerated this on a different day. But not yesterday.
You may be thinking “what does this have to do with empathy?” I will tell you that it has everything to do with empathy and just reinforces my views that the scientists are the ones who lack empathy. For simplicity in this post I say scientist to mean any doctor of any kind studying Autism. Autistic is used to refer to anyone on the spectrum, including Asperger’s. I can not speak for autistics, I am only speaking from my perspective as a parent.
There are a couple fabulous sites that discuss empathy and the science behind the studies done on this topic. I could not do nearly a good job so I will just direct you there. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes amazing posts, on her blog Journeys With Autism and she also edits and publishes the site Autism and Empathy. Autism and Empathy is a collection of posts from parents and autistics about the topic of Empathy and Autism. I highly recommend these sites.
I do need to give some background information to explain my thoughts. If you want further information please go read the posts I reference. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg discusses the work of Simon Baron-Cohen in many previous posts. He then replied to her critques. Simon Baron-Cohen explains how mostly disagrees with her previous posts but he does agree that Autistics are able to express empathy.
Simon Baron Cohen explains that there is Cognitive empathy and Affective empathy. He explains that Cognitive empathy is the ability to identify the other person’s state of mind by non verbal methods and affective empathy is the drive to respond appropriately. He further explains that Autistics lack the ability to recognize the other person’s state of mind without the feeling being explained to them. He goes on to explain that he agrees that once they are told the other person is sad, they do care (affective empathy).
In Rachel’s post here she critiques the reply of Simon Baron-Cohen and his work further. Rachel additionally has valid critiques of the actual Empathy test. She went on further to describe how Simon Baron-Cohen did not make the distinction in his book that Autistics care and compares them to psycopaths. This causes Rachel to be very concerned especially since he is now saying that isn’t. She correctly points out his book will probably be read more than the blog post.
If I haven’t already said this, go read these posts, they are full of information and are very interesting! Although I find it interesting, I also find it aggravating.
These scientists are going around saying autistics lack empathy because they do not recognize non verbal cues. They give examples about how the control group of children were able to identify the emotion in the same situation. Well put an autistic in a room and ask neurotypicals what emotion they are expressing and they won’t be able to tell you either. No wonder why autistics are so outraged. The scientists are all focused on how autistics lack empathy and need to learn the non-verbal cues. What about the neurotypicals learning some of the autistic’s non-verbal cues?
I recently attended a seminar for nurses where one of the subjects covered was Autism. I should have known better than to attend. I thought I would learn something and I suppose I did. I had many issues with the way some information was conveyed and was less than quiet about it. One of the big issues was when the lecturer mentioned that Autistics lacked empathy. I of course argued with him that my son absolutely has empathy.
The lecturer explained to me that it is possible for some autistics to learn empathy. He explained that yes autistics can learn the non-verbal cues for emotions. He explained that neurotypicals (not sure he used that word but anyways) can put themselves in the place of the other person. He explained that is truly what empathy means. He went on to say that an autistic could not truly put themself in the place of another person. Well isn’t that exactly what the scientists are unable to do? Their point of reference is “neurotypical”. The scientists are unable to put themself in the place of an autistic. I however think an autistic can put themself in the place of another autistic.
Now let’s circle back to yesterday at band. The teacher probably thought she was giving the kids a break by giving them a study hall. She may have even let them talk or play games during that period because hey, why not?, isn’t that what all kids want to do. They probably became loud but she probably thought who cares. Apparently my son did not have an outburst so no one realized it bothered him. I haven’t heard from the band teacher so let’s assume he did something like put his head down or chew on his shirt.
Either of those items would probably be ignored in this situation if the teacher doesn’t understand his non-verbal communication. (Even though I provided this information to the school before the school year started) It is not intuitive to her that this is what he is communicating, she doesn’t have empathy for him. So he needs to learn to express verbally his feelings because that is what is expected of him. But from speaking to her she only lacks cognitive empathy. She has affective empathy. In fact she has communicated she will do anything to help make band successful for him. If she had known it bothered him she would have probably handled it right away. But she didn’t have cognitive empathy so she didn’t know.
If someone can put themselves in his place they would realize that chaos or change causes stress. Last Friday at school it was absolutely chaotic, with kids “throwing toilet paper everywhere” This is what he reported in complete disgust and I am proud of him. It sounds to me like he is more civilized than the other kids at school!
When I posted the events of Friday on my blog I received some response from parents and autistics. Specifically on twitter @Celebr8nGenr8n tweeted that she read it to her also aspie husband. “DAMN. We feel awful for him, would not have handled it so well. Kudos to him!” In another tweet she said “Hubby was picturing rocking before I got there!” Sounds like her husband was able to put himself in my son’s place. I think that is called empathy.
The school has expressed that what occurred on Friday was not okay and kids got in trouble. They also expressed that my son does not need to participate in anything that makes him uncomfortable. I appreciate that but I have asked them to help him avoid the chaos and noise. I have also repeatedly asked them to notify me of change. Really what they need to do is try to see the world as he does.
I am always told that he needs to work on communicating when he is uncomfortable. We are working on this but I don’t think it is fair that the main focus is always on him learning the meaning of non verbal communication from neurotypicals and how to communicate “appropriately”. What about the neurotypicals learning a bit about his non-verbal communications and his way of communicating? I personally think that it is the neurotypicals need to work on their empathy for Autistics. I pledge to work on this every day, how about you?