The Empathy Strikes Back (at Hopeful Parents)
This post was published today here at Hopeful Parents, but the site is taking so long to load that I’m posting it here as well.
I spend a lot of time teaching Pudding skills that I hope will prove useful to her in the future. Sometimes I teach her things that are also useful to me right now. Earlier this year she learned how to make her own bed. It is great that my girl at 5 is managing something my mother couldn’t get me to do at 15, and most days I take more than a little pride in her achievements.
There is a downside, of course, waiting to bite. Some days we’re running late, but Pudding insists on making her bed before leaving the house. As I wait with the utmost impatience, I’m reminded of the old adage, be careful what you wish for.
Now the solution would be to organize ourselves better so that the bed-making was taken care of long before we need to set off. But being organized isn’t my strong suit. I blame my mother- she didn’t even teach me to make my own bed until my late teens, my lack of organizational skills is entirely her fault! Just kidding (Mum!) and in truth, who cares about being a few minutes late for school when such essential learning is taking place right at home. Not just domestic chores, but time-management and planning.
Then there are other things that I haven’t taught Pudding. Some things I’m not sure how to teach, or I’m not sure if they should be taught. I walk a line between deciding if something is a necessary skill, or if it would be trying to force neurotypical ways on an autistic brain. I read accounts by Autistic adults, but my ultimate gauge is my relationship with Pudding. I imagine having conversations with her in a decade or two, in which I justify my actions.
I have no qualms about teaching her to make a bed. She’ll thank me one day (thank you, Mum). But what if my efforts were to go too far? What if she felt forced into acting in a way that isn’t her, and doesn’t make sense to her? Some things aren’t black and white skills, but a whole murky grey area. A sense of what is appropriate may differ vastly from person to person.
For a long time, if I was sick, in pain, or crying with sadness, Pudding did not seem to show empathy. I’m not saying she didn’t feel empathy, just that she wasn’t expressing it in the way I expected. But expressing empathy in my (neurotypical) way, was not something I felt I should teach.
Perhaps as she got older, I’d tell that people expect others to behave in certain ways, but only at the point I felt I could do that without Pudding feeling judged or wrong for expressing herself differently. I can tell from the awkwardness of that sentence that I’d struggle with that no matter how I tried.
Fortunately, for me, Pudding has lately begun to express empathy in a very typical way. Last week when I mentioned I had a headache, Pudding got out of her chair, crawled into my lap, kissed my forehead twice and told me she was making it better.
Would you believe me if I told you it worked? And it took less time than the tablets I’d already taken too!
I didn’t have to wait too long for this latest development to strike back. That same evening as I tried to get her to go to sleep, Pudding tossed and turned and eventually got out of bed. When I asked what was wrong, she let me know that her doll was too hot, and therefore she had to take off her pyjamas and replace them with a nightgown, which took her some time to find.
I felt my headache creeping back the more empathy she expressed regarding Kelly doll, empathy looking a lot like a tactic to delay going to bed.
Of course, sleeping by herself is another skill we haven’t yet figured out. If that one were to bite back too, I wouldn’t notice…I’d be too busy catching up on all those sleepless nights in a galaxy far, far away.