Saturday, March 30, 2013

In order to Receive Empathy, we must first Teach it - Part 1

I grew up in a household where we were encouraged to keep ourselves to ourselves. If someone asked for help and we could give it, then we would - except if that help was deemed "too much work" or if that person was considered a "crazy person".  We would never offer help though - not without being asked because it was the job of the "helpless" to ask for support.

"Crazy people" were drunks, "druggies" and older, senile people. We never helped them unless we were cornered into it - and even then, the help that was given was only ever a means of escape.  These days of course, I recognize that these are terrible and callous attitudes to have but suppose I hadn't been taught that. Would I be the same today?

I remember my mother picking up an old woman in the car. She made it clear to us before picking the woman up that she was a "mad woman" and my sister and I sat in the back seat fearing for our lives.  We later asked her why she picked the lady up when we didn't know her and were told that she had jumped in front of the car.  She was given a lift because we were given no option. It didn't help our feeling of well-being when I asked about a scarf that the woman was wearing only to be told that she needed it or "her head would fall off".

I think it goes without saying that I grew up not understanding much about "poor people", misfortune and life on the edge.  Since I couldn't understand such people, there was no way I could "put myself into their shoes" and as such, I lacked not only the proper responses but empathy itself.

First Steps
It wasn't until I was much older, in fact, not until I'd left school and was out with my then girlfriend (now my wife of 16 years), that I started to make my first steps in the world of empathy. We were out shopping and we saw a young mother with a pram trying to get down some stairs. There were other people around her but they were ignoring her, just as I'd been taught to do.

My girlfriend told me to go and help but I said we couldn't until the lady asked for help.  We got into a bit of an argument which ended abruptly when my girlfriend went over and volunteered my help to lift the pram down.  We helped her and the lady was grateful but I still couldn't understand why she hadn't followed "the rules" and asked for help first.

I remember resenting the fact that I'd be been volunteered like that but it was the first of  many such lessons. They were lessons that I needed to have and I value my wife's input on these greatly. One of the big differences between our families was that hers was "conditioned to help" from a very early age while mine was not. I can't blame my parents entirely for that either because those values certainly passed to my mother from her own mother - and although she was a wonderful person to me, there are some terrible stories of injustice there too.

Today, the experience and parenthood itself has changed me.  Today I'll automatically help someone with a pram down stairs without being asked. I've learned.  At least, I've learned about "that" scenario but there are many others which are still new to me and these don't get automatic reactions when they should. From my point of view, I just have to keep an open mind and listen to my wife and mentor.

I'll discuss this in more detail in part 2.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Some insights on Empathy

The concept of empathy is a much discussed topic in Asperger's circles but I'm starting to wonder what all the fuss is about. You see, I feel that empathy has little to do with Asperger's syndrome.  So why continue to write about it? I guess I just want the myths understood and "busted".

Our family has just been through twenty-one days of hell and while the worst is clearly over, there's still a quite bit to come.  It has been a tense emotional and very very painful situation in which we needed all of the help and empathy we could find.  

It's hard For me to take a step back from the situation and look at things objectively but the situation revealed some surprising insights into empathy and asperger's syndrome which I feel need to be shared.

Particular insights include;

  • There is a huge learned component to empathy. In order to receive empathy, we must first teach it.
  • Neurotypcials can be far less empathetic than people with aspergers syndrome.
  • While emotions and empathy go hand in hand, they can also be mutally exclusive
  • Problems arise when our emotions are interpreted by others in visible terms - and this happens often
  • Lack of understanding of non-verbal language often poses a bigger barrier than lack of empathy

Each of these topic areas deserves to be examined in detail in an article of its own so that's where I will go from here. Please bear in mind that this situation is still quite raw for our family and I'll be writing in a way which protects them as best I can.  As a result, some things may come out more abstract than intended.