Has your child or young person ever acted in a way that made you think: ‘they don’t seem to have any empathy?!’
Perhaps you’ve been trying to get them to see your point of view about something, and it just seems impossible. Maybe they’ve exhibited some distressed behaviour in the form of a meltdown, and have hurt you, a sibling or damaged some property. And they just don’t seem to care.
You can’t understand this. They may seem a bit cold about it, and this makes you feel uncomfortable. Don’t they feel upset about what has happened? Don’t they *feel* sorry about it? Why can’t they acknowledge the effect their behaviour has had on you? Is that too much to ask?
This can inevitably lead to worries for their future. If they don’t feel regret, or empathy, then how will they survive in the world outside the family home? How will they make friends and form meaningful relationships?
Let’s unpick this a bit. So, you’ve acknowledged your child is autistic, and if you’re reading this then you’re probably parenting a PDAer. So you already know that your child is experiencing the world in a different way than you.
Or they may be experiencing the world in a similar way to you, but you’ve just learned to mask and cope. Just a thought…
Anyway, you feel the need to see some socially acceptable form of regret, understanding and EMPATHY from them. It may be because it will make you feel better about your parenting, better about your child and their understanding of social convention, and less scared for their future. And it will look better to others too, as you worry what friends and family members think.
But what if your child *does* have all those feelings, and you just can’t recognise it?
What if they feel every bit of sadness, regret, embarrassment after a meltdown and can imagine exactly how you’re feeling – but they don’t show it in a way that you recognise.
Enter – the Double Empathy Problem.
In a nutshell, this describes the disparity between how autistic and allistic (non-autistic) people show their feelings. If these feelings of empathy are not displayed in a manner which allistic people recognise as valid, then it’s assumed that no empathy is felt by the autistic person.
If the common societal cues (eye contact, apology, soothing words, visual signs of caring) are not shown, then it’s assumed they are not present.
Does that make you think about your autistic child in a different way? It might do…
When JJ was younger I used to repeatedly demand that he say sorry, and he was often unable to. The demand avoidance was strong! But also there was a genuine vacuum between us, of what he was feeling, and what I was *assuming* he was feeling.
His language skills were not as developed as his non-autistic peers, making it almost impossible for him to voice his inner thoughts and feelings. It’s still something he struggles with, but as he’s grown older and we’ve forged a connection based on trust, feeling safe and unconditional understanding – he is more likely to attempt to convey these feelings to me.
And I study him. Each frown, each moment of silence, each sigh can convey more understanding and emotion to me than a million sorrys ever could. He feels deeply. Sometimes too deeply. He also has a tremendous amount of embarrassment and shyness which is often masked.
And let’s not forget, if you’re spending a great deal of your day in survival mode, on high-alert, anxious about where the next demand is coming from, would you be able to focus on displaying empathy correctly to those around you?
Is it really important that you witness these social cues from your child?
I used to mistakenly think that when he was cocooned in his own world, hyper-focussed, that he couldn’t see my frustration, my worry… But it wasn’t the case. He always knew how upset I was, I see that now.
Over the past year or so, as JJ has started to verbalise his feelings more, I see a highly-developed sense of empathy. He’s acutely aware when I’m upset, and when he thinks he is to blame he feels it deeply. So I’m more honest and open now when I’m struggling, I don’t try and hide it as he can read me like a book. And I frequently get it wrong, believe me, but I do try.
Sometimes spending every day caring for a child with fluctuating support needs can be draining, especially if you have the additional battles of EHCPs, school attendance issues and everything else that comes with this life.
It can be hard for us to *really* know what it’s like for our child, to walk in their shoes. But taking a moment to do this can really open our eyes. Change the parenting lens and don’t assume just because you aren’t seeing typical signs of empathy, that they aren’t there. Look deeper.