For several decades, it was commonly believed that people with autism lack empathy. That autistic people struggle with sensing or feeling other people’s emotions. However, groundbreaking studies like this one conducted by Geoff Bird, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford, brought a completely different aspect of the story to light. It suggested the possibility of alexithymia – the inability to recognise or describe one’s own emotion – among both autistic and non-autistic people.
The results of the study were profound and incredibly significant for autism. It showed that in both, autistic and non-autistic men, the ones who had weaker brain responses to the pictures of others in pain had high alexithymia. When the responses were adjusted for alexithymia, the empathetic responses of both sets were almost the same.
A lack of empathy or the absence of the ability to understand the emotions of oneself as well as of others, among other things, can also lead to bullying behaviour in many individuals. While autistic children are often trained in empathy as a part of their therapy, there is an urgent need to teach the same lessons in empathy to neurotypical children. This sensitises them towards children with physical and intellectual disabilities, thereby reducing the instances of bullying in schools and neighbourhoods.
This ‘International Stand Up to Bullying Day,’ (celebrated on the third Friday of November each year), let’s understand how parents and teachers can raise empathetic children.
Raising empathetic children
Teaching children to be sensitive to the needs of autistic children around them is the key to positive autism acceptance, awareness, and action. A series of podcast episodes on Empathy, Joy and Autism by Amanda Irtz, share in-depth insights on these less discussed aspects of neurodiversity.
Helping children understand and appreciate the differences instead of pointing them out hurtfully and indulging in bullying behaviour should begin during the early years of their development. Parents and teachers play a key role in developing empathetic young minds. Here’s how:
- Practice empathy with them
More than what you teach children, it is how you behave with them and around them that they absorb and inculcate. It only makes sense then that if you want to nurture empathy in a child, you will first have to empathise with them. It can be for small things that might be seemingly inconsequential for you but can have a deep impact on their young impressionable minds. Modelling empathetic behaviour in the classroom and encouraging children to think from another person’s perspective can prove to be an effective strategy when it comes to teaching empathy to young children.
For example, saying things like, ‘I know you are upset because your toy broke. It is okay to feel that way. I’d feel sad if one of my things broke too. Let me help you figure out a way to fix it.’
- Talk about other people’s feelings
Correlating their behaviour with other people’s feelings and helping them understand the consequences of their actions can go a long way toward developing empathetic behaviour. You can also circle back to a time when they had felt hurt or sad because of something that their classmates or friends did and teach them why such behaviour is wrong.
For example, saying, ‘Look Pooja is crying because you took her toy. Please give it back to her.’ Or, ‘would you like it if others took away your toy when you were playing with it? Please return Pooja’s toy,’ etc.
- Books about feelings
Children can benefit immensely from reading books about feelings. Parents and teachers alike can use this tool to help young children recognise and understand their own emotions as well as those of others. Books like ‘The Little Book of Big Feelings’ by Maureen Marzi Wilson and ‘The Way I Feel’ by Janan Cain are a good place to start.
Understanding and making sense of big emotions can be tough for little children. Validating their feelings and letting them know that it’s okay to feel the way they do will help them take positive strides towards being empathetic grown-ups. It will create a positive space for greater autism acceptance and significantly reduce the instances of bullying.