When you have a child on the spectrum, you get used to disapproving looks from strangers. But if people learned to be kinder and more understanding, it would benefit everyone.
I have come to understand over the past decade that empathy is a learned skill
One of the most difficult things about autism is the judgment of other people. That has been my experience of having a son on the spectrum. Throughout his life, from trips to the park as a toddler to restaurant visits now as an 11-year-old, it has been the reactions of strangers that have really hurt. Sometimes Zac finds social situations very difficult. If things are noisy, if there is something he wants that he can’t have, he finds it tough to process those emotions. He may cry, he may become angry, he may have what is commonly termed “a complete meltdown”. As parents, my wife and I have developed ways to foresee and manage these situations, but if we are in a public place, or if my son is with other adults, everything becomes far more fraught and complicated. You get used to the disapproving looks. You get used to being judged.
Because autism is now such a huge part of my life, when I first encountered the National Autistic Society’s Pledge Initiative, which offers neurotypical people 18 ways to alter their behaviour in order to help friends and colleagues on the spectrum, they seemed really obvious.
- Making firm arrangements and sticking to them,
- giving people time to process information, and
- taking an interest in the things they like are vital elements of being a parent to my son.
- And to be honest, they also sound like good ways to behave in general, whoever you are speaking to. But when I watch people interact with Zac – in shops, at children’s parties, in the park – they often fall short. I have seen parents get angry with him when he didn’t understand pass-the-parcel, or when he kept picking up and keeping the ball during a game of football – even after I have explained that he has autism and the rules of social games can be incomprehensible to him.
I have come to understand over the past decade that empathy is a learned skill – the ability to understand the viewpoint of another human being is not natural for a lot of people – so the NAS pledges, which are based around taking a few moments to assess the fear or discomfort of another person, are very valuable. Making sure there is a quiet space at parties, making sure you keep to plans, making sure you offer help to someone who looks confused rather than gawping at them really are things that we have to think about; they don’t come naturally to a lot of us.
The writer then goes on to discuss his book – A Boy Made of Blocks
#Mark Taylor Psychologist