Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Walking into Walls

After my daughter was first diagnosed with autism at 4.5 years of age, we wanted to work on her empathy. She totally lacked having any. I remember one time she was at her best friend, Billy's house. Billy had banged his head and was screaming and crying in pain. He sounded awful! As his mom and I were tending to him, I noticed my daughter playing with his toys seeming happy to have a chance to play with them all on her own. I was horrified! This wasn't the first time I've seen this type of situation either. She adored Billy, yet she liked his toys more.

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!

10 comments:

  1. My son has always had some emphathy for an Aspie. If I hurt myself he tries to kiss my booboo like I do his. It's very cute. :) He says my kisses work on his pain because my momma love.

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  2. That's a lovely story and I totally relate to it. My daughter is exactly the same. She worries about me being epileptic since she witnessed me fitting last year, but before that she wouldn't have bat an eyelid. Her empathy outweighs children of all types, and all ages.

    CJ xx

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  3. What an amazing stry.. i always think how blessed your daughter is to have you,, and to have had Dr. Koegel... amazinfg!! I literally got goosebumps

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  4. I can relate to this very much. My son Dyvin has difficulty with empathy. He often needs prompting. I will give this a try. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. We also had to work on this with PA. Now if anyone coughs, falls or anything she is on it *laughing* it's really cute. Now I have to teach her not everything deems a trip to the Dr.

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  6. What a great idea. Looks like I'm going to be walking into some walls myself. =)

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  7. I think lack of empathy is a common misconception with the autism spectrum - I mean, I'm sure there are some autistic kids who truly aren't empathetic. But I think (and I've read this too) that it's more of an issue of not knowing what's going on - if you're not aware of something, how can you have feelings about it? Or if they are aware of it, they feel something, but just don't express it. Another case, is that the autistic kid is TOO empathetic, and it becomes painful, and they shut down. (This was DEFINITELY the case with me.)

    On another note, the "accidents" seem like an effective (and rather amusing!) way to teach your daughter to express empathy!

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  8. One of my biggest concerns is that Moe would learn how he was supposed to behave but never really understand. But it seems a lot of behaviors first become a learned response and eventually becomes internalized. Moe won't usually greet people and has to be prompted to wave hello or goodbye. But lately, he's started look when my husband come homes and sometimes will wave or even approximate "hi!" I think he's slowly starting to get it.

    I'm so jealous you've worked with Lynn directly!

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  9. Love Lynn Koegel....you are so lucky to have met her and had her actually work with your daughter!

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  10. I love seeing how modeling of behaviors really works in real life! Very cool, and you're lucky to have been able to work with Lynn.

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