We are lucky to live in an age where Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are being more frequently diagnosed than ever. There is no doubt that there have always been sufferers of ASD in society; diagnosis rates are just increasing because now we know there is a cause behind what would have once just been dismissed as a quirk.
As a parent with an ASD child, you might find you feel you have so much to learn you can’t possibly keep up. While there are a variety of different skills you can learn to encourage your child with, one that is going to keep coming up is a simple one: social skills.
Across the spectrum, autism has an impact on how a child can socialize. What might seem like the basics for neurotypical children are difficult for ASD kids. They might struggle to speak with their peers, or seem to spend more time in their own head than externalizing their thoughts and feelings to others.
That’s not to say that ASD kids don’t care. They have a tendency to feel emotions very strongly; they are just more prone to internalizing it. With that said, empathy can be a tricky issue for those with ASD – they struggle to place themselves in another’s shoes, so they can’t relate to hurt feelings or pain of others.
For your child, the idea that their friend might still be upset about the lost teddy is, frankly, baffling. They have a replacement – what’s the problem? They can’t quite relate to the fact their friend will, even while loving their replacement, still be upset about the bear they no longer have. This can seem cold and heartless when it’s actually just an example of the hyper-logical thinking of an ASD mind. It’s not wrong; just different.
Thankfully, this is something that can be encouraged. There are a variety of techniques you can use to help develop empathy.
One of the most useful can be bringing a pet into your lives. ASD kids tend to respond well to animals in general, and the care requirements can give them an idea of empathy as they relate to the animal. Mild-mannered breeds of dog are a great choice, such as spaniels or golden retrievers.
For your child, they care about their pet. You can then say: “well we don’t want him to grow overweight, do we? That would be bad for him”. This is a rational process (not wanting the dog to be overweight) – so easier for the ASD mind to understand – but with an emotional connection (they care about the dog thus want him to be well), and as a result, your child will help with ensuring your dog is eating the right food. This same principle can extend to the application of Frontline Plus dog, worming tablets and regular booster shots. By combining the rational process with the emotional reaction to the overlooking of that process, they will begin to piece together a level of understanding.
You can further reinforce this point when your dog has a preference. They all do! Some won’t want to go out in the rain. So you could use this as a teachable moment. Your child will see that their dog doesn’t want to go out through their resistance. If they query to you why it’s happening, then you can explain it’s because of how the dog feels. They will then have a route to connecting a behavior they are witnessing with an emotional reason.
This is just the beginning of empathy development, but it’s a wonderful place to start.