Teaching autistic kids empathy - Mothering Forums

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#1 of 9 Old 08-06-2013, 10:25 AM - Thread Starter
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I have an 11 year old autistic son who has difficulty relating to other people and animals. He is very protective of his personal space and his things, to a point that he screams, kicks, or hits anything that gets in his way, including guests who are unaware of his issues, and family pets.

I try to model for him how to ask people to move nicely, and how to direct pets without the aggression, but he does not get it. To him, he wants people to leave him alone and when he acts like that, they leave him alone. Problem solved. I've tried asking him how he would feel if people treated him like he treats others, but he doesn't seem to relate to that either.

Has anyone else dealt with this issue, and how did your teach your child to be a polite, functional individual?
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#2 of 9 Old 08-06-2013, 01:19 PM
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because I have no advice but desperately wish I knew how to handle this...

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#3 of 9 Old 08-07-2013, 11:31 AM
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This isn't an immediate solution but we are using Floortime to work with our child.  As you help your child move up the DIR Functional-Emotional Developmental Ladder (this is the model that Dr. Stanley Greenspan created and is at the center of the Floortime intervention) your child learns to connect and engage.  Empathy requires connection.  It's a slow process and we are just starting out.  Like I said, not a quick solution but maybe something to look into, if you haven't already.  

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#4 of 9 Old 08-08-2013, 06:49 PM
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I can relate. My son (8.5) had these issues as a youngster and although he is far better now, there is still that capacity to lash out and hurt others when he is overwhelmed with his feelings of anxiety. Consider that anxiety underlies most of what your son is doing, as he is seeking to protect himself. His body is going into "fight or flight" mode and conditioning them out of it is what is needed.


Also, consider that your son probably does have empathy. I think it's a myth that autistic kids don't. I thought for years my son didn't have it, because of how he would treat others physically, how it would seem he felt no remorse immediately after doing it, even if the kid was crying, etc. And because when I would pose questions along the lines of "how would you feel if that were you" he clearly didn't get it.


But I learned that he did have empathy. In quiet, calm moments he would tell me he felt bad about these things, that he wished he wasn't autistic so he wouldn't feel that way and act that way. He would show concern for the person he hurt, not so much strangers but his friends, yes. I began to see that a) in the moment of lashing out they cannot feel empathy because their fight-or-flight response is in high gear, b) immediately after he is overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and regret that he just cannot process quickly so he appears to shut down which some take to be a lack of remorse or appreciation for what just happened, but I know from later conversations that he very much did get what happened, and c) their inability to put themselves in other peoples' shoes; the fact that he couldn't answer the "shoe on the other foot" type questions was not because he had no empathy, but because of the mind-blindness that often comes with autism - I needed to phrase things a different way, like asking "what do you think that person was thinking about you when you did that" and "how do you think that might affect your friendship with that person" - those questions he could answer.


For prevention, modelling isn't enough with these kids. They need a specific strategy and a context in which to employ it and it needs to be repeated over and over again until it sinks in. We use a language around "meltdowns", we use words like frustration, anger, and anxiety (we talk alot about what anxiety is, what it feels like physically, emotionally, etc so the kids can learn to recognize when they are in that state). We talk about coping strategies, what is okay and what is not okay. 


I don't put it in the context of "you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you" because that means little to them; they can't wrap their heads around it. Instead, we talk about the rules of society, we talk about how humans are social animals (biology is big around our house) and what happens when people don't have relationships in their lives (recently we talked about solitary confinement and why that is a punishment; what it does to people psychologically). The rules of behaviour (not hitting, not swearing at people, for example) are rules that are simply non-negotiable, whether they understand why, agree with why, or not. 


You also said that he figured out when he acts like that people leave him alone, which is what he wants. Last year my son started going out with a behavioural interventionist with years of experience dealing with autistic boys. He can take anything these kids can dish out, and one of the things my son learned through him is that hitting, swearing, etc simply didn't work: it didn't get him out of doing stuff or going out with this guy, etc. I also now have him in an after-school type program where the same applies: the staff can take anything he dishes out, and none of it will be grounds for dismissal. These environments are so important as they teach him that these old strategies won't get him what he wants. And of course they also teach him healthy coping strategies as a replacement for these behaviours. 


Finally, I know that when he is overwhelmed socially, emotionally drained, physically tired, etc he is more prone to hitting. Being aware of these limits, keeping him out of situations when I feel the risk is high, these have all helped. For example, if the neighbour's kid comes over to play and I feel DS is not in a good place I will encourage DS to stay in his room and hang out there (which he loves to do anyway) and have DD play with the guest. I'll even tell the guest that DS is not in a good place today and is going to stay in his room. We try to support our kids whenever they recognize they are feeling this way, encouraging them to take breaks or remove themselves from social situations in those situations. 


Anyways, I hope some of this was helpful!

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#5 of 9 Old 08-25-2013, 01:00 PM
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I like the ideas above. My son has a lot of empathy regularly, but in the heat of the moment, he does things that seem like he has none at all, physical or verbal aggression.


One thing I tried that helped was a kindness tree, where I put little tags when we noticed each other or our friends being kind. And we talked about the good feelings we got when we were kind, and those good feelings we got when people were kind to us. This led to lots of positive noticing and attention. Now my guy notes kindness as a central part of his identity.


The second thing I have done that works is a break when it happens, with a few minutes of quiet and then first replacement language i.e. "Excuse me, I'm coming by" Once he learned a lot of the correct replacement language, I had him problem solve what some better choices might have been. I sent him back in to use those choices.


Our behaviorist recommends that now that he pretty much knows the better choice, that I ignore aggressive language, or if he is requesting something I say: "OK, but you get that in 5 minutes because you didn't ask correctly." Just starting that, so I'll let you know how that goes.


Good luck!

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#6 of 9 Old 09-02-2013, 12:10 PM
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Because my oldest has trouble relating other people. I relate a situation to something similar he feels.

Ie: you know how you feel sad/embarrassed/hurt when someone does/says xyz to you? Well when you say/do xyz it makes this peraon feel the same way.

Then we talk about other instances that someone had gotten their feelings hurt due to other people's similar actions.

Then i reinforce what the different proper responses or actions would be

Lucien is high functioning autistic
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#7 of 9 Old 09-05-2013, 01:06 AM
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I guess I had an advantage in some ways because we got our diagnosis so late, but I treated them like any other kid and disciplined them for inappropriate behavior. Time outs or loss of privileges. These kids are so literal and verbal reasoning and explanations get completely lost on them. I still do it (because I am wordy LOL) but its probably pretty ineffective. When I am most effective is when I am short and to the point. I tell them what we don't do (and why), what we can do instead, and then I expect them to do it (with some reminders at first of course). If they continue the inappropriate response, they get a consequence or loss of privilege. Even after they were diagnosed, our psychiatric and behavioral health team assured me that they needed consistent discipline regardless of their diagnosis, and to not let that be an excuse. My 17 yr old Aspie recently thanked me for not letting him "get away with bad behavior" as he goes to school with other Aspies and is horrified at their behavior and the excuses both they and their parents make for them when he sees that they are truly capable of behavior better if they were motivated to do so. 


For example, we have issues with sharing things in our house. And my boys are teens! But seriously they are animalistic in their territorial behavior. Someone picks up their book to read and suddenly its the most important thing to them. I have sat down with them and tried to get to the bottom of it but in the end, its not rational. Its just their gut reaction. Its MINE and he shouldn't have it!!!! But its anti-social and contributes to a lot of tension and bad energy in the home and so it must go. So we decided on rules about books. If a book belongs to a person and they are currently reading it, they get first rights to it. If they are finished, they need to allow others to read it. Books are for sharing. If you want a book back that someone is reading (because you were reading it and put it down, NOT just because its "yours") then you ask politely. You don't snatch it away or yell or scream. That is rude. If someone asks for their book back, you are expected to give it without yelling or screaming or throwing it. We don't throw books. etc, etc.


And the consequence? If they can't behave reasonably with their books, we take the books and put them up for a while. There was nothing to read but cereal boxes in this house for about 3 days because DH was so sick of the fighting he tool all their books out of their room. I have taken books away maybe a handful of times and they are much better. They don't want to lose them so they are motivated to behave properly. Eventually I hope the motivation comes from understanding its kinder and more mature...but for now I take it for what it is. 


So I guess that is my long winded way of saying you need to work from the outside in. Make a rule, decide a consequence and stick to it. Point out the advantages to them when it works! But also recognize that because understanding another person's perspective (even being cognizant that another person has a perspective different from theirs!) is so hard for these kids, I think we have to motivate them based on what they can relate to - their own comfort and interests. 

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#8 of 9 Old 09-12-2013, 07:03 PM
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Hi there

Have you looked into relationship development intervention (RDI)?  I'm in the early stages of researching this and it looks really interesting (and the amazon reviews were positive fwiw!) but have no experience implementing any of the activities yet! Im having trouble working all the speech therapy exercises and OT strategies into our days as it is, adding more into the mix is a bit daunting, but this is next on the list of things to look into. The book I have is by Gutstein and Sheely. Maybe there's others out there who have used this approach who are more qualified to comment but i just wanted to throw that out there in case it's relevant or useful for your son. 

all the best!


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#9 of 9 Old 09-22-2013, 08:43 AM
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Have you tried social stories? I know most people think of them as being for younger kids, but I think they're useful for all kids on the spectrum. You can't necessarily teach him to feel empathy (although I agree with a previous poster that we can't be certain he doesn't) but you can certainly teach him which behaviors are not acceptable. There needs to be a consequence for placing his hands on someone else's body (reiterate to him that just as he would not like to be shoved, neither do others) or hurting animals. Also, you can reiterate why these things aren't okay from a "feelings" stance too-like "when you shove Kitty, it makes her scared and it could hurt her". 

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