Wednesday 14 October 2015

Autism and misunderstandings of empathy

My son often appears unsympathetic. He has difficulty recognising his own feelings. But on Monday he astounded staff at school with his excessive empathy.

Today is Wednesday and I was, until the school drop off this morning, fairly unaware of what an eventful day Tuesday had been. Anthony is seven years old and attends a mainstream (regular) school but is supported in his class and throughout the school day by a Teaching Assistant (TA), or Learning Supping Assistant (LSA) full time.

Like many children, Anthony is not very good at telling his parents what he did at school on any day. Even if he does discuss activities, I often find his discussion disjointed and difficult to understand. This week he had mentioned that he had become angry at school but he wasn't angry anymore. This is not unusual for Anthony; he can become angry over very small issues, particularly if he is over stimulated. It turns out he was talking about one of the 'Tuesday events', two of which I'd like to briefly share as Anthony's wonderful way of empathising.

Empathy can be broken down into understanding what others are thinking or feeling, sometimes known as 'cognitive empathy', and 'affective empathy', being able to respond to that with an appropriate emotion. According to some studies, individuals on the autism spectrum may experience one or both of these areas, not being able to figure out what people are feeling or what to do about it.

Children with additional needs are sadly at higher risk of bullying. This can be for many reasons and you can follow my blog as I will undoubtedly cover this topic in the future. On Tuesday two boys who were three years older than Anthony started to bully him in the playground. As it should be, this was noticed by staff, some of whom were quite emotional due to the nature of the bulling. But what happened next surprised them all. Anthony didn't want to tell any more staff at the school because he didn't want the bullies to be in trouble and he didn't want them to become sad.

Anthony has been picked on before. Often this is due to him not understanding what's happening in play. One day a spitting game with boys became a spitting at Anthony game. These few incidents have always been dealt with very well and quickly. Anthony has understood that the children were not being nice anymore and were being naughty. But on Tuesday Anthony was far more concerned with the feelings of others than himself. He was concerned that the bullies would be sad because they were in trouble, that their parents would be disappointed in them, or that they might get sent to the Headmasters office. What a wonderful example of caring for others above yourself.

On the same day, a child in Anthony's class was telling a friend that a boy had hurt his arm falling off a swing. Anthony misunderstood the conversation and thought the boy had broken his classmates arm. Anthony immediately got very angry and had to be taken out of the class and the classmate had to come and explain that their arm was OK. The little boy that had hurt his arm was OK. The little boy had fallen off a swing - no one had hurt anyone. However, Anthony had jumped to the defence of his classmate with such conviction it took a while before he could be sure all was OK. He was so over whelmed that it took time before he could even 'hear' what was being said to him. Anthony may not have got either of the 'parts' of empathy right here.

We talk to our son about bullying and about helping himself to calm down when he gets angry. But, despite his odd behaviour in both situations, I was very proud of his actions.

External Links
Bullying UK -Advice if your child is bullied because is disability or special needs 

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