One of the most difficult things to teach an autistic person is empathy. It can require years of repetition, and even then reminders are needed; rarely is an empathetic act spontaneous, at least in my experience. It’s just due to the nature of autism – inherent in the “aut” (self) part of it. And so, we have to teach them to care, and we hope that one of these days they’ll do it on their own.
This past weekend Nigel went on a two-night backpacking trip with his Boy Scout troop, and I stayed home with Aidan. Nigel usually does very well with the troop, provided they’re not doing the type of gift exchange where everyone picks a number, and the higher number-holders get to “trade” gifts with the lower number-holders, whether they want to or not. No, Nigel didn’t do well with that. He lost a giant chocolate bar that way, and he’ll never forget it (I’m sure no one else from the troop who attended that gift exchange will forget it either). But other than that, most of his outings with the troop are problem-free. I asked the scoutmaster to remind Nigel to take his medication, and off they went on a 13-mile backpacking trip.
Upon their return, I asked the scoutmaster how things went, and he said that Nigel did really well. He only took issue with having to get into a wet tent after it had rained. But then the scoutmaster told me that one of the nights he woke up to what he thought was a coyote, then he realized it was one of the kids crying. He got up to investigate and realized it was coming from Nigel’s tent, which he shared with another boy. The scoutmaster stood and listened as he heard Nigel consoling the other boy whose stomach was hurting. When the other boy said he wanted to go home, Nigel calmly stated that there were no motorized vehicles to take them home and that he should try to relax. The next morning the scoutmaster thanked Nigel for helping the other boy.
It has taken many years, with many setbacks along the way, but Nigel has reached a very important milestone: showing empathy (in a leaky tent, no less). I’m certainly not deluding myself into thinking that it will always be like this from now on, but it’s an encouraging start. It’s more than encouraging; it’s truly wonderful. He’s applying life skills without reminders, and I am thrilled.