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How I Teach My Son Empathy in What Feels Like Every Situation Possible

The post below is by Lisa Smith, the mother of seven children, two with special needs. Her son Tate has autism. Lisa blogs about her experiences and can be found on Facebook at Quirks and Chaos or at Read previous posts for Autism Speaks from Lisa Smith here.

Recently, on a cold wet day, I was entering a medical building when a car pulled up, and a frail, elderly woman got out. The parking lot and sidewalk were a bit slippery and the woman crept slowly toward the door, one tiny step at a time. I thought she might topple over she was so unsteady on her feet. I stepped toward her and offered her my arm. She gladly took it.

She obviously was not going to make it far without some help, even after we entered the building. I walked her slowly to the office she needed. She was worried her husband would not know where she had gone so I went back to reveal her whereabouts. I waited and then I saw him, slowly approaching the door of the building. He was bent and decrepit, walking with a cane. Every step was painful for me to watch. I stepped through the doors, back out into the cold, and offered him my arm. He was a bit gruff, and declined, indicating he had the cane and that was enough. I explained where his wife had gone. He thanked me and told me his wife never would have made it without someone’s help. He said he always helped her if she had to walk more than a few steps. This elderly man was barely able to keep himself upright, yet he was normally his tottering wife’s support! I walked with him until we met up with his wife. As I left them, I stopped and quietly urged the receptionist to use a wheelchair to help the woman get back to her car.

I have thought about those folks several times since then and wondered how they are doing. They appeared to be long past the ability to live independently. I hope they are safe and well, and together.

What made me stop and offer my arm to the woman? What made me return to ask her husband if he needed help and then almost physically ache when I saw how difficult it was for him to walk? What made me press the receptionist to help them back to their car? What makes me wonder about them from time to time? It’s a kind of caring concern called empathy. Having compassion for someone and being able to put yourself in their shoes motivates people to stop and help others. Those two elderly people touched my heart. But where does empathy come from? Is it something we are born with? Is it something we are taught? Does it grow gradually over years, starting small and then building?  

I think it is mostly taught. Mostly.

But, people are all very different. One of my children had empathy from the time he was very small. If he had a cookie he’d give it away. My others had to be taught. It took a little longer for some of the kids to learn to put others’ needs before their own than it did the others. Being the parent of seven I saw a lot of different personalities and was amazed often at how differently they all learned and needed to be taught.

I said all of the above to finally get to this. One of the characteristics of autism is aloofness, the lack of interest or concern for others. It is also hard for a child with autism to generalize the things they learn. In other words, something a child learns in one situation will not be applied in another setting. So teaching my son with autism about compassion and empathy has been hard. I see progress though. He inquires about people’s health. He has started doing a few small chores without being asked. He has learned to try to listen to his friends at school when they talk to him because he knows it is important to them. Once in a while he offers to share things he has. All these things have been taught to him individually. I could not just explain the golden rule to him and expect him to apply it to his life. I have to teach it to him for each scenario.

Tate will do what he is told usually. He does want to please people. Like most people with autism he is a rule follower. He just has to be told the rules. The hardest part of teaching him to help others is getting him to recognize, without being told, what someone’s need is. Being young is part of it of course. Probably a lot of thirteen-year-old boys would walk right past an elderly woman who could have used their assistance. But there are many things Tate should have mastered a long time ago that he still struggles to understand. It is not that he is UNKIND. It is just that he does not think about being KIND. It does not seem to occur to him.

Tate might be able to quote the golden rule, but he needs to be taught how it applies in every situation individually. And he won’t just learn it by example usually. He has to be taught with direct instruction. We can teach him to hold the door for someone, teach him to share a package of cookies with his siblings, teach him to be attentive when his friends at school are talking to him, and teach him to take turns with a video game. But when a new situation comes up, one he has not been taught about before, he probably will not step up and behave as if he cares about anyone’s interest but his own. There will be literally hundreds, maybe thousands of things he will need to be taught. We do have a good start on it though!

Can you imagine what it would be like if you could not generalize the things you learn in one situation and apply them to another? Can you imagine what it would be like if you had to be taught what was expected of you in every situation you might run into? Can you imagine what it would be like if your family were constantly becoming exasperated with you for not doing the right thing when you do not even know what the right thing to do is? People with autism are not necessarily rude or uncaring. They may appear that way because they do not know what is expected of them nor can they always figure it out based on similar experiences. And so I teach empathy. And I explain empathy. And I have empathy for the one I am teaching empathy to. He is like the elderly lady I helped down the hall in so many ways, and I am like the gruff man. Tate needs my support and guidance to make it a short distance, yet I am wobbly on my own proverbial feet at times. I must drive him right up to the door of empathy and hope others are there to offer him their arm and help him too. 

Read more blogs for Autism Speaks from Lisa Smith here.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.