Saturday, September 22, 2012

Empathy and Asperger's

I think I mentioned that Susan has Asperger's.

An acquaintance of mine who happens to be a teacher said once that she went to a training on working with kids on the autism spectrum. The instructor began the class by asking how many of them had previously taught a child with Asperger's or autism. Then he said to those with their hands raised, "Congratulations. You know one person on the spectrum." He went on to explain that each kid on the autism spectrum is unique, just as each neurotypical kid is unique. What worked with a previous student may or may not work with your next one and the symptoms that define your current student's struggles may be completely different than anything you've seen before.

For Susan, she struggles with social interactions. She doesn't read other people very well and she has a very hard time making "small talk." She wants things to happen when they are supposed to happen and does not like it when the plans are changed on the fly. Her (public) school has been incredibly proactive in helping her learn the skills she needs to get better at these things, especially in their work with her on figurative language, which she had to learn by rote, instead of picking it up from context clues the way most neurotypical kids can. (For example, used to be that if I told her that she was taking forever to get dressed, she would ignore me, because she knew that the process of getting dressed was going to be done in a finite amount of time and therefor my saying it was taking "forever" didn't make sense. She's since learned "it takes forever" really means something more like "it's taking too long." She still doesn't hurry up, though.)

Aside: When I mention her diagnosis to people, I often get asked if I watch Parenthood. I have. I still do, sometimes. But I struggle with the characterization of Max, because (since the departure of the character that was his behavioral aide), I don't see them working with him to help teach him how to function better. I don't see him learning what's appropriate behavior in public and I don't see any attempts to help him learn that. Maybe that's a character arc that they are taking deliberately, but it saddens me that the show isn't using the platform it has to demonstrate how much help is available and how much can be taught. (To be clear, I think the actor is amazing. He nails the no eye contact, constant motion, difficulty with change that characterizes most kids on the spectrum. When they have given him scenes where he needs to show the difficulties that will never really go away, he has done so well at them. I wish they would utilize those talents to show him growing and learning how to function in neurotypical society.)

I've often heard social skills issues in Aspie's described as "lacking empathy." It's not that Susan doesn't have empathy. It's not that she doesn't care about what other people want or like or enjoy. It's not that she doesn't want other people to enjoy being around her. It's not even that she's not paying attention to what those around her like or want. It's just that she doesn't always know how to show it.

Today, she's going to a birthday party for another girl in her 5th grade class. (She doesn't get invited to a lot, so we never turn down an invitation.)

I asked her what she wanted to get as a gift for the birthday girl. The birthday girl is "girly" -- into makeup and hairstyles and trendy jewelry. Susan is . . . not. But Susan knew these things about the birthday girl and chose to get her an assortment of nail polish colors and a small manicure set to go with it.

Susan also told me repeatedly that the birthday girl really likes rainbows. She wanted to wrap the present in something with rainbows on it. And she wanted to wear a shirt with a rainbow on it to the party -- although she doesn't own one -- because she wanted everything she was bringing to the party to be something the birthday girl liked.

She's not lacking empathy. She just doesn't know how to show it in ways that don't come off as "weird."

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