I went up to her and said that Billy was really hurt. It would probably make him feel better if she checked to see how he was doing. She put the toy down and went over to him to tell him she was worried. I didn't think this lesson would stick, but a couple of days later we were at the park for her preschool picnic. As I was pushing her on the swings, I heard a boy crying. My daughter yelled for me to stop swinging her. She said she heard Billy crying and wanted to see if he was okay! She was right--it was Billy who was crying. I was floored!
Nevertheless, we had more work to do on empathy lessons. We consulted with one of the top experts on autism, Dr. Lynn Koegel. Dr. Koegel runs the Autism Center at U.C. Santa Barbara. She has written quite a few books on her approach with behavior therapy. We've been extremely blessed to have met with Lynn a few times so she could meet my daughter and help us with some issues. One of the first things Dr. Koegel did was help us work on empathy issues.
What she did initially was literally walk into a wall. After hitting the wall, Dr. Koegel said, "Oh, that hurt!" My daughter didn't say anything. She just kept playing. Dr. Koegel asked my daughter if she was aware that she had walked into the wall. My daughter answered that she was aware. Dr. Koegel then prompted my daughter by telling her she could have asked, "Are you okay?" After that, poor Dr. Koegel kept walking into walls. My husband and I had a hard time stifling our laughter. We also wondered if our daughter though this bigwig at the university had to be the world's klutziest person! But it worked! My daughter was much better at asking, "Are you okay?" without being prompted. It sounded kind of forced, but at least my daughter was showing some form of empathy.
After our visit with Dr. Koegel, I continued the accidents at home. It's a good thing I'm pretty accident-prone to begin with! This kept my daughter well rehearsed. Then a weird thing happened. Her display of empathy stopped sounding so stilted and actually started to sound genuine. My daughter also was able to show empathy in other situations. She was able to take this skill and apply it to other situations! Fantastic!
Now, a couple of years later, I think my daughter is extremely empathetic. Not only do I think her empathy is high for a child with autism, I think her empathy is high for any child her age!
I will always thank Dr. Lynn Koegel and her walking into walls for this gift of empathy! Thanks, Lynn!