What My Daughter on the Autism Spectrum Has Taught Us About Empathy

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 being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder at the age of 2, Erin who is now 18, has consistently reviewed picture boards and social stories to recognize the range of human emotions and 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. Through rigorous repetition she has learned to see beyond herself and to understand the fundamentals  of human relationships: how to share, use your words, treat others the way 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 education programs. As parents we need each other to fill the gap.

Children are not born knowing how to empathize anymore than they are born knowing how to complete a quadratic equation or hit a backhand crosscourt. As I see on a daily basis, all four of my children need consistently to be reminded how it feels to walk in someone else’s shoes.

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My daughter’s hard work has taught me that behavior can be modified and empathy learned. 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 and feel outside their own experience.

My teenage 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.

On a family trip to Florida a few years ago Erin decided she was “done with the plane” mid way through the flight and loudly demanded to get off. As I tried to contain and distract her, a young family in matching outfits looked on in wide-eyed silence. My youngest son later told me he wanted to disappear.

As I watch the boys wrestle with embarrassment I know their adolescent self-consciousness is only compounded by a social precedent that expects and applauds strength and conformity — bolstered by a president who employs aggressive and hurtful language and actions to bully anyone he deems “lesser,” different or a threat.

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 elect leaders who embrace and celebrate diversity, who do not mistake sensitivity for weakness, who see strength in compassion.

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 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, to be a member of the police or armed forces or to be a parent that has all the answers. But I do know what it is to rely on the kindness of strangers, 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 really never ends.

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