Have you ever been in a conversation where you don’t feel heard or valued? A conversation where you put your heart on a velvet pillow and then the listener comes back with, um, a self-centered or “I’m so sorry,” response? The kind of response where you leave the conversation wondering what just happened and why or how it shifted away from your story to something completely different.
Here is a scenario: Let’s imagine you work hard every day at your job and there is finally an opportunity for a promotion. So, of course, you interview for the position because you deeply believe you are a qualified candidate. And, then, you receive the phone call that you’re not the person for the job. Suddenly, you are embarrassed and you doubt your (amazing!) abilities at work. Anything like this ever happened to you?
Now, let’s imagine you are sharing this story with your friend or loved one. You say something like, “I can’t believe I didn’t get the job. I am stuck in this position forever. I work so hard and no one sees it!” And then you hear one of these responses from your friend or loved one (the listener):
- The I Can Do It Better response: “Oh, come on! That is nothing! Before I landed this job, I had to interview about 12 times and I was in my third trimester of pregnancy.”
- The Advice Columnist response: “You know what you should do is …”
- The I Feel Sorry for You Response: “OMG! I’m so, so sorry to hear this! I just want to cry for you!”
- The Girl, You Have NO Idea! response: “Look on the bright side, at least YOU have a job. I’ve been jobless for 6 months now and my dog just … “
- The Eye for an Eye Response: “Those [insert profanity], let’s scour them on social media right now.”
- The Supreme Court Response: “You are just not prepared for this position. I’m sure I can help you through this.”
For me, these statements would be completely meaningless to me – and some even hurtful. In fact, I would question whether the listener even heard what I shared with them. I would wonder if they even cared. And, I would likely retreat into myself, trying desperately to process not only my interaction with the listener but also my experience with the job interview. Instead, what I’d rather hear is something like this:
“Amanda, I hear that you are extremely disappointed with not getting this job. If you are comfortable, I would love to hear more. …”
Right there … that is what opens my mind and my heart to the listener. This also helps me to build trust with them because I know that I’m in a safe place and there will be no judgment, no advice, no stories that are better than mine, etc. This is where the magic of empathy begins to take place.
Now, I want you to feel this same experience as it applies to your child on the autism spectrum. Think about the moments when your child is stuck in a sensory meltdown, the world whirling around him and the sensation of a scratch on the finger overwhelming all thoughts. Or the moments when the chicken nuggets and apple slices just all tastes “horrible” and he is hungry, but he can’t verbalize what it is he wants to eat for dinner because he is so overwhelmed with the horrible taste of the chicken nuggets and apple slices.
So much of parenting a child on the autism spectrum is about being an empathic witness. The term sounds a bit more complex then it really is. I like to think of this badge of honor as the person who hears your story with love and understanding. This is very different than being a compassionate witness, someone who gives sympathy or pity to your journey as a human.
It is about responding with love, even when you don’t totally understand. Being an empathic witness is when your child is hurt and upset and confused about the new routine. Listening with empathy is putting aside the judgment and allowing your child’s story and feelings to just flow and spill to the floor. It is hearing the cries and holding your child’s hand when he feels the hurt of someone’s words. It is saying to your child, “I hear you are sad (angry, upset, confused). I’m here to listen to you right now.”
I also like to think about an empathic witness as the person who holds sacred a moment on my journey – and listens to and tries to understand my perspective. In a moment of complete despair or confusion, I want to be heard. And, in these moments, I firmly believe our children on the autism spectrum need us, the parents and the care partners, to be empathic witnesses to their journeys.
Do you find this valuable? Do you know someone who might also enjoy this? Please share so we can collaboratively create a more empathic understanding of autism.