Empathetically speaking

21 Jun

Two years ago, while I was home alone with the kids, I sliced my hand open on a broken glass.  I called my husband to take me to the hospital to get stitched up, and enlisted the babysitting services of my mother-in-law. As I sat with a bloody dishcloth wrapped around my hand, waiting for said husband and mother-in-law to show up, the kids stood there gawking at me.  To put it more accurately, James stood there gawking at me.  Then only two years old, he hadn’t yet grown a sense of empathy.  He was intensely curious about why Mommy was clutching her hand and making funny noises. George just laughed.  I guess the sight of me sitting there with a white face and straggly, witchy hair, dripping blood all over my clothes, could be seen as amusing, but at the time I was too focused on whether my hand was still attached to appreciate the humour of the situation.

That George’s reaction was so at odds with the situation is not surprising.  Lack of empathy is one of the hallmarks of autism. When James is hurt or upset, George will stand there laughing at him, much to poor James’ distress.  He has no way of understanding that George is not trying to be mean.  It’s not a case of George deliberately laughing at someone else’s pain. He simply doesn’t have the social cues to know when someone else is actually in distress.  The rest of us know that when someone cries, they’re sad, or when they say “ouch”, they’re hurt. People with autism have difficulty with this.

George has discovered a series of Youtube videos that fascinates him no end.  The videos feature an orange talking to other fruits on the kitchen counter.  The orange is incredibly annoying and makes all kinds of jokes at the expense of whichever fruit is unfortunately enough to be engaged in a conversation with it.  The videos always end by the orange saying something like “knife”, and then watching in horror as the other fruit gets sliced up to the sound of its own screams.  The videos are quite funny in a disturbing, South Park kind of way, and absolutely not appropriate for children.  George finds them absolutely hilarious – or he did before I got wind of them and started an endless campaign to stop him from watching them.

Yesterday, George’s attempts to watch the annoying orange were blocked.  Every time he tried to access them, I would close the browser window and drag him away from the computer.  He was getting very upset and agitated – more so when I announced that his allotted time on the computer was up.  The legs were kicking, the hands were flapping, the little face was wearing an expression of utter distress.  Just as I thought we were getting to the point of a meltdown, he looked directly at me – a relatively rare event – and with supreme effort, he said, “Mad”.

I was bowled over. This was a new development – a milestone to be celebrated, despite George’s state of upset.  In most circumstances, George would have simply exploded in a fit of frustration.  But now, for the first time ever, he had used an emotive word to express how he was feeling.  Instantly I saw the possibilities: if he was able to identify and label his own emotions, surely the next step would be to identify what other people were feeling and react appropriately.

Somehow I was able to divert George’s attention from the violent fresh produce videos.  I allowed him a bit of extra time on the computer, and he clicked onto Youtube videos showing scenes from Toy Story.  There is one scene where Buzz Lightyear and Woody are weaving in and out of traffic as they try to catch up with the family’s moving van.  The other toys band together and try to help them, and during all of the excitement Mr. Potato Head topples over and some of his bits fall off.  At this point in the video, George tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention.  He pointed at the computer screen and said, “Ouch.  Hurt.”

Empathy!  George had just shown empathy!  Who cares that it wasn’t for a real person in an actual situation?  Who cares that he felt empathy for a toy in a fictional tale?  He saw a situation, assessed it correctly, and identified that Mr. Potato Head was hurting.  And he wasn’t even laughing – his face was all seriousness.

They say things happen in threes, and this turned out to be the case yesterday.  After the excitement of the dual milestones in the morning, there was an incident in the evening that capped off the day in the best possible way.  Both of the boys had spent the afternoon in the backyard, and they were absolutely filthy (word of advice: kids + sand + ice cream = not a good combination). Although tempted to simply hose them down in the backyard, I settled for giving them a bath.  George, as is his custom, grabbed his box of alphabetic fridge magnets and dumped them into the water.  He doesn’t play with them when he’s in the bath, he just likes to have them with him.  It makes bathtime a very interesting and noisy event.

When bathtime was over, I let the water out of the tub, and got the kids towelled off and in their jammies.  Then it was time to dry the alphabetic magnets.  If they are not shaken off and dried, George dumps wet letters on his bed and everything gets soaked.  So I was kneeling by the tub, drying off letters and putting them into the empty plastic fish tank that serves as their receptacle, and I dropped one.  I discovered that when those things are dropped in a bathtub, they bounce about a mile.  I was unceremoniously hit in the face by the letter “Q”.

George was standing by, patiently waiting for his letters.  Usually this incident would have brought forth peals of infectious giggles.  But there was silence for about ten seconds.  Then, George tentatively approached me, and shyly said, “Mommy?” I said, “Yes?”, and he said, “Are you OK?”

Not only was this such a wonderful demonstration of empathy, it was the most natural spontaneous exchange I have ever had with George.  It was an exchange that was appropriate to the situation, one that he initiated himself with no prompting.  It was a genuine moment of connection, one that will be with me for a long time.

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One Response to “Empathetically speaking”

  1. akbutler July 6, 2010 at 11:44 PM #

    wow! that’s terrific! Empathy is the one thing that my little guy just doesn’t get, and it’s the one thing that is so frustrating for both me and my husband. We see glimmers of it every once in a while just like you did, and it’s magical. Thanks for sharing this, and I’m going to show your post to my husband 🙂

    Alysia
    http://trydefyinggravity.wordpress.com

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