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.
A pair of red noise-cancelling headphones roll around the floor of my car. A pink and brown leopard print blanket and brilliant blue blanket are folded in the seat next to my daughter. Tucked into the side of car door cubby is small journal and two markers: a hot pink Sharpie and purple Crayola marker. The small backpack on the floor of the car, below where my daughter’s feet brush the floor, is filled with rocks, a magnifying glass, a turquoise hair bow, and chocolate-chip granola bar (smooshed, of course). And her seat is positioned directly behind me. I can look into her eyes and see her. Her. My girl.
And these are her tools for coping during car rides.
And in the third row sits my son. He is adjacent to her because directly behind her is an invitation for hair pulling, kicking, and pushing against the seat. Instead, his steadying service dog, Aussie, sits next to him. Her soft ears resting on his arm. Her overstuffed pillow bed a place for my son to also rest his head during our car rides. And in his place, tucked into the back corner of third row, is where he watches the world outside his window. He often perches himself on the arm rests, examining the cars on the road, the people on their bikes, the clouds floating above, and the moon that follows us. And during his examination of the world that surrounds him, he moves his torso, very slowly, back-and-forth and back-and-forth. It is a gentle movement. There are also times when he will feel the clouds by creating a sound with his mouth or his hands. The sounds change depending upon what he is trying to explore. The cloud sound sometimes sound like a low zzzz-buzzzz-zzzz-sssshhh-shhoooowsh . And when he feels excitement about his sounds, he will follow-up with a siren noise, blaring loudly into the corners of the car.
And then, reeee-roooo, ree-rooo-OOOOO.
It isn’t until the siren noises begin, the Sis begins to also scream at her brother. With frustration in her voice, she screeches, “Buddy, be quiet, please!” I look at her eyes through my driver’s rearview window. I see the exhaustion in her eyes. The bubbles of anxiety getting bigger with each breath. And then she will yell, again, “Be quiet! I need peace right now!” And the quintessential remark from Buddy in the third row is, “I’m not doing anything! I’m listening to the clouds Sissy!”
And then, reeee-roooo, ree-rooo-OOOOO.
“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” she screams, again! Looking, again, at her eyes through my mirror, I offer my only words of advice during a car ride on the interstate. “Sissy, why don’t you put on your red headphones and take out your journal?” I offer. I also want to scream. I want to pull over the car and open the door and throw a catastrophic screaming fit. I want peace and quiet, also. I just want to get from point A to point B. Seriously, why must the clouds follow us on this particular car ride? Why must my daughter screech and scream? Why must the siren noise in my car escalate after each cloud’s noise?
Yet, I say none of this. It stays permanently tucked away in a small corner of my brain. It knows better than to emerge.
And, so I offer Sissy another nudge. “Sis, you know you always feel better with the headphones on. And I really need a new picture to keep in my billfold,” I encourage with a soft voice.
“Ugh, this is ridiculous!” she responds. And then I watch her put the red headphones over her small ears. She picks up her markers and flips through her journal of letters and mermaids and cupcakes. “Okay, what should I draw you, Mom?” she asks with a tone of annoyance.
I smile at her in the mirror. “Why don’t you draw me a picture that makes you happy,” I say in response. “Alright, fine” I hear from her small voice.
Beep Beep Beep … BEE!
“Bee! Bee!” I hear from the third row of the car. And suddenly I watch as my son unbuckles his seatbelt and climbs into the second row in the seat next to his sisters. “Mom, you have to stop the car,” he cries in terror! “There is a bee! A bee!” he continues to cry.
“Brother, it’s okay,” offers Sister’s reassuring voice. I watch as my daughter takes her headphones off her small head. She carefully places them on the floor. “Here, is a blanket. This will protect you.” she offers. My son wraps himself into the warmth of the pink and brown leopard print blanket. His head is covered. His knees are tucked in tight to his chest.
“Mom, you need to unlock the windows,” says the now firm voice of my daughter. I oblige and quickly unlock the windows. “Brother, the bee is going to fly away now. He hates it in this car, too.” she says with great wisdom and compassion.
The intensity of this moment is filled with panic. A true sense of fear wraps tightly around my son and add a quickness to his breathing. His body becomes stiff because any movement may result in that bite, that sting.
And the windows roll down. And the bee flies out. And the windows come back up.
“Okay, Brother. It’s over. You are okay now.” she says.
Small whimpers reveal come through the corners of the blanket. Buddy unveils his face and looks at his sister. He smiles. He unbuckles his seatbelt, again, and crawls into the third row. Tucking his head into Aussie’s soft neck – the place between her ears and her snout, he closes his eyes.
“Mom, I think we need some calm-down music now,” says Sis.
And, like I’m listening to the cues of a pro, a true guru in the world of empathy and compassion, I follow her directions. I cue up my Pandora station to a Meditation and Mantras channel.
I breathe in deeply.
I exhale completely.
And, I smile, with gratitude at my little girl who is now coloring in her journal. She is a champion of love in more ways than she will ever comprehend at the small age of 6.
The car ride continues down the interstate. The clouds continue to follow us. My son drifts into a deep sleep. My daughter colors and smiles and makes small talk with me. And, I reminded that these cloud-chasing moments are filled with love.
It was a Thursday evening. That day that is sandwiched between almost Friday and the days that lingered before it. It is the waiting period after landing on the tar mat after your 4-hour flight, anticipating the waves and the sand on your toes, and the 20-minutes it takes for all the passengers to GET. OFF. THE. PLANE. Yes, it is that 20-minute period where we are so close to Friday, which leads us to the next day, Saturday, that is filled with the pool and riding our bikes. It is the 20-minute period where we feel the tension and the stress from the week. We are tired. Yes, we still have 20-minutes to go.
On this Thursday evening, I picked-up my kids from school and rushed them to our dinner spot. We had a quick 58 minutes to eat dinner and then buzz to soccer practice. And soccer practice would be a catastrophe if there wasn’t something in those bellies. Buddy and Sissy argued over who had the worst snacks in their backpacks (yep, good work Mom). Sissy threw her smelly socks at Buddy, and Buddy immediately wailed a loud scream, “Don’t do that! It isn’t nice!”
I turned on the “Sleep Time” music from my Pandora account. The soothing tones drifted into the car and then harnessed some of the built-up tension in the back part of SUV I chauffeured. I watched my son rest his head next to Aussie’s soft ears and her deep brown eyes. He picked-up his small hand and began to stroke the tip of her ear. And before I knew it, he was ignoring the world around him and focused on his best friend: his dog.
I say a small prayer of gratitude. I look into my driver’s mirror and into my daughter’s eyes in the reflection. She rolls her eyes at me and then says, “I hate sleep time music mom. It isn’t even night-night time yet!” she says with a tone of authority. I smile and I keep driving.
We pull into our dinner place. It is one of three spots where we can eat together as a family. There are not a lot of humans (a big deal). The food is simple and always the same (rice and edamame). We always sit in a booth toward the back of the restaurant. The only new part of our experience at our place is the integration of miso soup – a warm broth with seaweed in it. The seaweed always gets pulled out immediately, so the broth can be enjoyed in small sips from the bowl. This is our place.
And then I hear Buddy’s voice in the back seat, “Mom, I don’t want to go out for dinner tonight.” I’ve heard these words before – many, even countless times. However, I’ve never heard these words at our place – his favorite place.
“Why not, Buddy?” I probe.
“I’m just don’t feel like it,” he protests and then squirms in his seat into a small ball.
“Well, I want to eat here,” wails Sissy, as she unbuckles her seatbelt and opens the chauffeur door.
“No, not tonight mom. I’m not hungry,” I hear from his small voice.
I continue to probe for a few more minutes. He is used to this and so am I. It sometimes takes time to get into a restaurant – to prepare oneself for unexpected humans and loud, clingy sounds. And then he says to me, “I’m embarrassed.”
Embarrassed. Fifty-two scenarios play through my head. Is he suddenly self-conscious of his 9-year old sweaty body odor? Is he concerned about what he is wearing? Did someone say something to him at school? And on …
“Mom, I’m embarrassed because now people will know I’m different. Really.”
I pause. I look my son in the eyes. It never occurred to me that during this 20-minute period of time between Thursday and Friday, and soccer practice, and driving to our place for dinner, that my son was growing aware of his new best friend’s presence.
“Mom, what if people look at me? What if people say things because of Aussie? They will know that something is wrong with me.” he says with his head still buried in his neck and his small hand rubbing the tip of Aussie’s soft, black ear.
“No one is going to judge you,” a small 6-years young voice chimes in from outside the car door.
“That’s right, Buddy. Be proud. Not everyone gets to bring a dog to dinner with them. And, not everyone has an Aussie dog. In fact, I bet people will be excited to have a four-legged friend in the restaurant.” I add to my daughter’s already profound statement.
“Come on Brother. It’s okay.” says Sissy. “I can hold your hand.” as she gestures her small hand toward his.
Buddy emerges from the car with his Aussie dog. Aussie’s big paws hit the pavement and she pushes her wet nose into Buddy’s elbow. He grins and then rubs her head. He says, “Okay. I’ll try this. But I’m scared and I’m embarrassed.”
“I know,” I respond. I hold his small hand and pull Aussie’s hand-less leash over shoulder. Sissy walks to the door, opens it, and then holds it for her brother. She smiles at him. I smile at him and I blow Sissy a kiss. And we walk in, as a family: Buddy, Sissy, Aussie dog, and me. And we feel the struggle and the curious eyes that follow us through the restaurant. We find our booth in the back and Aussie crawls under the table and sits next to Buddies’ feet. He strokes her head and says, “It’s okay, baby girl.” And he repeats it, as if reassuring not just his dog, but himself, that he can do this.
It’s okay, baby girl.
It’s okay, baby girl.
It’s okay, baby girl.
And then we eat our sticky rice. And no one asks us any questions.
We sip our soup. And no one asks us any questions.
We ask for chop sticks. And no one asks us any questions.
And we giggle about some small detail from the school day.
And then we leave our eating place. Just like any other family.
And, when we pile into the car, with the soccer ball rolling into the street, and then buckle up Aussie girl with her dog seat-belt, and close the hatch, and find our water bottles because we all of sudden parched … I watch my son nestle his head into Aussie’s neck and say, “we did, baby girl.”
I pause in this instant – in this 20-minute waiting period before Friday. I pause to soak this in. This is life. This is the rumble we must all live in (as author Brené Brown would say). This is the place in life where we have to feel so that when we do move forward, we know what that moment felt like. I’m grateful my son felt embarrassment and also expressed it. His emotion gave my daughter the strength to lift him up and for me, his mom, to dig a bit deeper. His emotion allowed him to feel something and then recognize that it really wasn’t so bad. His emotion allowed him to understand that nothing is wrong with him. And as he continues to grow and flourish, I hope he begins to understand the perceptions of our world just need some more nurturing about accepting all individuals for who they are.
Our neighbors’ new puppy is a Great Dane. She is all paws and big hush-puppy eyes. This 9-week old and this puppy captured the attention of everyone in my building. Except my son.
My daughter, all squeals and happiness, jumped with excitement with the sight of a new pup in the building. The puppy received all of her attention. She snuggled into the puppy’s face, tugged at his ear, and played chase with his big paws and her small hands. My son, who usually interacts the same playful way with dogs, stood in the corner of the main entrance to our building. His chin tucked to his neck and his hands in his pockets. All of his body told me that he wanted nothing to do with the puppy.
“Buddy, why don’t you pet the puppy? I know she will make you smile,” I nudged with gentle words.
My son responded with, “No, Mom. I’m good. Can I go inside now?”
“Yea, of course,” I replied.
I watched my son open the heavy door to our building. He looked at me and a tear trailed down his face. And a big question mark appeared on top of my head. Why is my son refusing to play with this new puppy? Dogs usually bring him peace, increase his confidence, help his to discharge his lightning-bolt energy, and are the always faithful audience when reading aloud.
The question mark stayed with me until my daughter and I walked into our condo unit, and my son immediately said, “Mom, I feel jealous.” Suddenly, my question mark turned into an exclamation point.
For many, jealously is not an emotion that we like to express. We are taught that we should be happy for others – and that we should express excitement when someone is joy-filled with something or someone. We are told that jealously reflects the self. That if we cannot feel happiness or joy for someone else – then our self is not happy or joyful.
Yes, I agree. But, I also want to dig a bit deeper into this.
I’m thrilled that my son identified his feeling. I’m thrilled that he felt no boundaries in telling me his feeling. Why, you may ask? Well, for a child to be able to self-identify what s/he is thinking or feeling, is truly one step closer to developing empathy. For my son to say that he feels jealous – is a beautiful emotion because he is creating the foundation for understanding that if he can feel hurt and joy wrapped together into jealously – then maybe he will understand that others can also experience jealousy. That others also have emotion.
So, by saying, “I feel jealous,” is really not so bad. This is the starting place to understanding the complexity of the human spirit. We are only as good as we allow ourselves to be. And, if by allowing ourselves to feel jealousy will help us to better understand other humans, then I invite more emotions to walk their way into my son’s life.
This may seem commonplace – understanding emotions and being able to read people. It is commonplace for some. For others, especially those with autism spectrum disorder, understanding and recognizing emotions takes a great deal of practice. It is common for a child on the spectrum to misinterpret or totally miss another person’s emotions. Raising Children, a parenting organization in Australia, state
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find it hard to: recognize facial expressions and the emotions behind them; copy or use emotional expressions; understand and control their own emotions; [and] understand and interpret emotions – they might lack, or seem to lack, empathy with others (Emotional Development in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, 2017).
Okay, so now what? Here are some things you can try with your child:
- Identify your emotions when you feel them. Say out loud, “I feel happy right now because I’m spending time with you.” Don’t be afraid to share with your child when you’re feeling sad, too. It is okay for your child to know that humans experience many emotions. If you are upset or crying, you can say, “I feel sad right now because _______.”
- Help your child identify their own emotions. When you see they are crying about a lost piece of homework or the moon lamp not working, you can say, “I notice that you might be feeling frustrated because your moon lamp isn’t working.”
- Practice making faces and using body language with your child. Extend your arms wide like a tree and put a smile on your face. Ask your child to guess the emotion you feel. Then, take turns and ask your child to create an emotion for you to guess.
And, as for the dog. I’m actually a bit entangled in joy and sadness because it hurts so good to see a family with a new puppy. It hurts to know this isn’t our life (yet). However, it is a beautiful thing to see feel others’ joy because of an all-paws, big hush-puppy eyes, dog.
Citation and Copyrighted Material :
Emotional development in children with autism spectrum disorder. (2017, January 31). Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/development/social-emotional-development/emotional-development-asd
(Photo) Leaverton, B., & Leaverton, M. (2016, September 26). Everything Great Dane Puppies – Adorable Pics! Retrieved November 5, 2018, from https://dogtime.com/puppies/41281-great-dane-puppies#/slide/1
I willingly admit that I don’t focus on the joy every moment. Or even every day. I know I should look for the joy in the meltdowns over a missing Lego piece, the turkey bacon being too cold, or my own cup of coffee spilling down the front of my blouse. Truly, there has to be joy in our day-to-day moments, right?
And when these not-so-joyful moments occur, I often start a story in my mind. It usually sounds like, “my life is so hard and there are no breaks and how will things ever change?” My negative story can even grow and change into a bigger beast by hyper-focusing on just one small aspect of my day. When I tell myself that “no one hears my voice in meetings,” then that reality often starts grow in my life.
Your negative story may be different from mine, but we all have these inside voices that repeatedly tell us stories. Maybe your negative story is about using the wrong words in a situation or coming across as too brash or too clumsy.
I will also admit that it is very difficult for me to shift my negative story into a joyful one. However, I do try. I try to ask myself, What if there were something to be joyful about? Is there any joy here in this story?
Let’s look a bit deeper into my negative story: Why can’t my life be easier? Why do I have to be so responsible for everything – the bills, the groceries, the love, the discipline, and plunging the clogged toilet? I’m so tired. I feel like all I do is give and give – and then I collapse at night. Is that what my life is destined to be?
It’s not a very inspiring and motivating story, right? And really, who wants to hear such a story?
Now let’s go deeper and dig out some of the joy. Again, I will note, this is not easy work for me either. However, the more I try, the better at it I become. My joy-filled story: My life is overflowing with opportunities and love. My kids are never bored because they are involved in so many activities – and I know this adds richness and texture to their stories. I know they are happy because of their constant giggling. And, I am a jack of all trades! Who can really say THAT about themselves? I mean honestly: Mom, Assistant Principal, Kid Chauffeur, Toilet Un-clogger, Battery Replacer, Expert Lego Finder and Knower of All (according to my kids) Bam! And, the beginning of a new day is my reminder that life is my constant teacher – and that it is better to be tired and filled with love than to have nothing at all.
Truly, this is the same story, how told with a different tone. The lenses that I’m looking through is joy-filled. Some may call this looking through rose-colored glasses. Yes, this may be true. However, there is great power in putting energy into what you want to out of life.
I share this with you because being a parent of a child on the spectrum can be difficult and challenging and exhausting and … (phew – don’t fall into the negative trap). However, I continue to redefine my story by looking at my son’s growth with social interactions, his deep love for animals, his brilliant mind that never stops, and his affection towards me. I watch how my youngest child responds with love in almost everything her brother does or says. Together my children teach me and show me joy. Sometime the joy is tucked under a thick layer of lashing out or crying. Other times, the joy is found after an hour-long cry session over a missing piece of homework. Whatever it is, there is always a way to shift your perspective – and potentially change the way you view the world.
So, go ahead, give it a try. The next time your negative story steps up to the microphone, ask yourself: What if there were something to be joyful about? Is there any joy here in this story?
About once per week, we drive to one (of three) favorite spots for some edamame (without salt), white rice (with no sesame seeds on top) and apples. I’ve thought about asking the owner to create a standard order for my family because the order never changes (at least until now). We sit in the same spot: next to the trash station and hydration station. My son likes to sit tucked against the partition between the table and the trash station (phew!) and my daughter seats herself next to him. This particular spot is a favorite because few persons enjoy sitting next to the trash station, which provides ample room for movement and noises – two very important components of eating.
On this particular visit to our eating spot, I decided to try something new. (Admission: I too can get “stuck” with eating the same things at restaurants.). Rather than ordering my traditional Mean Greens meal I went with the Kalibi Bowl. A simple switch. A switch shared with the server during my casual order.
When the meal time convened, my kiddos dug into their sticky rice and poured gluten-free soy sauce on every kernel. They pulled edamame beans from their pods, giggling with delight at the simple, yet pleasurable taste. I too dug into my bowl. I tried the new flavors of meat and the pickled ginger. I devoured the steamed spinach. And then I slowed down …some of the flavors just didn’t jive with me. I picked out the remaining pieces of vegetables and then I stopped. I just didn’t like my order. I never said a word or made a face (to my knowledge). Yet, my son noticed so much.
“Mom, I notice you didn’t order your Mean Greens,” he says to me.
“Yes, Bud. I thought I’d be brave and try something new tonight,” I respond with a smile.
“Well, I can tell you don’t like it Mom. Do you want me to order you something else?” He replies in a matter of fact way.
Do you want me to order you something else?
Do you want me to order you something else?
Do you want me to order you something else?
In this moment, I beamed a ray of light that any mom would beam if her 7-years young child retorted with, “Do you want me to order you something else?” I cried on the inside. I jumped high into the sky (of course in my mind).
My son took a huge step and showed me a piece of his empathic side. He took a break from the constant movement, the repetitive noise, the day-to-day, and he noticed something about me. He noticed that I changed my order and that I didn’t like it. He responded with kindness. He responded with grown-up words. He responded with love.
On the days when I shed tears because the transitions erupted into raging meltdown and sour words, I remember moment like these. The tender ones when my son shows me that amidst the non-verbal moments, the chaos of noises, that he does take note of the important things … like his mother’s favorite meal and whether she likes it.