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emotions-empathyParents of children with special needs and particularly parents of children on the autism spectrum, are often led to believe that their child has “no emotions or no empathy”. Unfortunately, this is a stereotype based on the beliefs of unobservant people, and one which has been perpetuated by the media in stories, fictitious films and articles.

Looking for Emotions
The real truth is that there is empathy, but that it isn’t displayed in the same way as “neurotypical empathy”. In short, it’s there if you know how to look for it.

There’s an experiment which is frequently tried by the mothers of children with severe autism. It involves pretending to be unconscious and watching to see if your child will call for help or at least become upset. The usual reaction, in which the child helps themselves to a toy or food and then sits by their side waiting for them to play is often more upsetting for the parent, who feels unloved.

It can lead parents to think that the child doesn’t have emotions or that they simply don’t care for your well-being.

Where to Look for Emotions
The best advice I can give is to stop judging in normal terms and to look more closely at what is going on. Your child is giving nonverbal signals of love. Sure, they’re not panicking or running for help, but equally, they’re not leaving your side. It’s an expression of love.

The same principles apply to empathy. People on the autism spectrum generally have difficulty interpreting the mood or feelings of others, particularly those who are not on the spectrum. Similarly, neurotypical (normal) people, have difficulty interpreting the feelings and signals of people on the spectrum.

There is a lot of research which says that between 60 and 80% of all communication is nonverbal, and I suspect that if we confined that research to only the communication of empathy and emotion, that figure would be much higher. It’s clear then that the problems of interpretation play a very important factor in the emotional bond between parents and children on the spectrum.

Improving Your Bond with Your Child

  • To improve this bond, parents of children on the autism spectrum need to work hard on the verbal communication of their feelings. For example, instead of simply collapsing on the lounge chair and expecting peace and quiet, you need to say “Mummy is feeling very tired now and needs to be left alone until three o’clock”. It’s specific, but you’ve communicated both your mood and your needs.
  • At the same time, parents need to work on the interpretation of their children’s actions. Instead of simply judging actions (or inaction) on its own merits, ask yourself:
    • Did they understand my needs or my feelings?
    • Are they simply giving me what they would want if they were in the same mood (alone-time for example)/
    • Are they communicating any emotions in a different way to the way I would expect.

Bridging this gap is the key to understanding and building relationships with your child.