Tag Archives: empathy


Nigel, age sixteen, calmly noticing that there is only enough milk for one bowl of cereal:  “I’ll just have toast this morning.”


At the age of six, after he had spent three years in an intensive ABA-based program, Nigel started Kindergarten in a contained (non-mainstreamed) classroom through STEPS, Specialized Training in Education Program Service. It was a two-year program, and he did so well after the first year that I made a huge mistake, one I still regret: I tried mainstreaming him before he was ready. The results were disastrous, and fortunately we were able to have him go back into the STEPS classroom after several agonizing weeks of the regular. He seamlessly returned to STEPS and finished out his second year, making even more developmental strides.

Almost ten years have passed, and I’ve never forgotten the STEPS classroom and how beneficial it was for Nigel. But to be honest, usually it’s the acronym that I think of on a regular basis. It’s a reminder of the nature of development where autism is concerned – sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back. Sometimes it just seems to be a whole series of steps back. And sometimes there are those blessed days when it’s one forward step after another.

Aside from some grouchiness due to Daylight Savings Time and some minor growling about having to do household chores, Nigel has, behaviorally and socially, been doing incredibly well. He still attends his social skills class every other week, and that helps a lot. But the fact is – he’s self-regulating just as well as he did when he was on medication. It took some adjustment time, but these days, he continues to out-do himself.

For instance, when we were planning his recent birthday sleepover with two friends, he thought that it would be fun to carve pumpkins with them, and I thought it best to prepare him by mentioning that no one should be obligated to carve the pumpkins if they didn’t want to. Nigel’s calm response (in his typical flat voice): “I most certainly recognize that.” (!) Additionally, at this point he has nearly mastered the art of the Unprompted Thank You, less than a year after his first one. And one morning last week, as he was going out to the shed to get his bike to ride to school (a feat that, even after a year, I never take for granted), on his own he remembered his helmet when I kissed him goodbye and said, “I love you. Ride safely.” Usually I notice when he occasionally forgets his helmet. I don’t know which shocked me more – that I didn’t notice, or that when I said ride safely, he realized that he had forgotten his helmet and went to put it on. But that – amazing as it was – was nothing compared to the thing with the toast.


Aidan, my creature of extreme habit, my fourteen-year-old limited eater, always has cereal and milk for breakfast. It’s the only dairy he will consume. If we’ve run out of milk on grocery day, he refuses to have anything else for breakfast, and I can’t stand the thought of him going hungry. In the mornings, Nigel usually gets to the kitchen first to pour his own bowl of cereal and milk. Then Aidan staggers in and does the same thing. Once in a while, Nigel, on autopilot, uses up the last of the milk before Aidan gets out there. I’m sure it was never a conscious decision on Nigel’s part not to save any for Aidan. So, knowing that Nigel also likes toast for breakfast, I made a suggestion one morning when there had only been one serving of milk in the carton and Nigel had consumed it.  “Since Aidan doesn’t like toast, maybe in the future if you notice that there’s only enough milk for one person, you could save it for him, and you could have toast.” Nigel negligibly nodded; morning tends to be his least verbal time. I figured that, at best, he might remember to save the milk after I had reminded him at least twenty more times (and no, I’m not exaggerating). I certainly didn’t in my wildest dreams think that two weeks later, after my mentioning it only once to him, that on his own he would pour his bowl of cereal, go get the milk, notice by the carton’s weight that it only had one serving left in it, and calmly, empathetically announce, “I’ll just have toast this morning,” saving the milk for his brother.

But that’s just what he did. He took another (big) step forward. And my heart swelled with emotion for my son, this wonderful soul who has never stopped trying.

Ed. note: Veterans Day has always been an important day to our family, and Nigel and I will be continuing his tradition again this year. If you hadn’t read it last year (or would like to again), I’d be honored if you would read my post about Nigel’s tribute to veterans. It’s one of my favorite stories about my son – and the veterans he looks up to.

Doing Something

Teaching empathy to an autistic child is one of the many issues we parents face. I do so in small ways, such as reminding my son to hold the door open for someone who is coming through the same door behind him. I have him help me carry the groceries into the house. We apologize to the cat who was accidentally stepped on. I also try to get Nigel thinking in big-picture terms of empathy, such as donating stuffed animals, toys, and school supplies to a Hurricane Katrina project three years ago and having discussions about the impact of natural disasters and acts of terrorism on people and families, not just buildings.

And so when my sister had the wonderful idea of Nigel joining her for a Habitat for Humanity walk in her area yesterday, I wholeheartedly encouraged Nigel to do it. I told him about Habitat for Humanity and described other people’s living situations to him and how this organization helps. And he wanted to be a part of it.

Yesterday dawned a bit cloudy in Roseburg, Oregon, but we Pacific Northwesterners aren’t daunted by a 66% chance of rain. Nigel went out with his aunt and her dog and jog-walked the two-mile area with about 30 or 40 other participants, and they got a cool “I support Habitat for Humanity” T-shirt out of the deal. I told him I was proud of him for getting involved with a good cause. That night I asked him if he liked going on the walk.

Nigel: I didn’t mind it.

Me: Sometimes when people say they don’t mind something, it indicates that they don’t really like it.

Nigel: Well, the jogging part was a little tiring, but the walking part was okay for me. I liked that part.

Me: Did you like showing support for Habitat for Humanity?

Nigel: Well, we need to do something for the poor.

That’s my boy.

Lack Thereof

Yesterday I wrote a post about Nigel showing empathy without being prompted, and today I thought I’d write one to illustrate his development in that area, and how far he’s come.

Nigel has been involved in Scouting since 2004, and it has been entirely positive. He’s been in Boy Scouts for two years and was in Cub Scouts for almost two years. Three years ago, when he was ten, we were attending a monthly Pack Meeting at the elementary school, and there was a stage set up in the gym for the school’s annual talent show, which was held that same week. The Pack Meetings were typically held in the gym, so all the kids had fun climbing on the stage and play-acting. One Scout’s younger sister (about age four) slipped and somehow became wedged in between the stage and the wall behind the stage. She was stuck tight, and it took at least five minutes of planning and carefully moving the stage to get her out. One of her thighs had taken the brunt of being stuck, so it had been scraped, but other than that, she did not appear to be seriously injured, and was mostly crying out of fear.

The whole episode peaked Nigel’s interest. If I had realized the reason behind his interest and taken into account his lack of empathy, I would have stopped him from going over to the worried parents as they comforted their daughter when she was removed from the stage. I would have stopped him anyway, if I had been close enough to him, since I didn’t want him getting in the way. But he was not near me when I saw him walk quickly over to the parents, and I dashed to catch up to him to distract him before he could reach them. I arrived just as he loudly asked, “Can I see the scar?” The mother scowled at him, turned, and walked away carrying her daughter.

I, mortified, apologized to the father and led Nigel away, explaining to him that what he asked was not appropriate when people are hurt. At the time I thought the concept was lost on him. “I didn’t want to touch it; just look at it,” he persisted. But something about my response must have stayed with him. He must have absorbed it, filed it away, as he does with every other piece of information that comes his way. And gradually, over the years, he is learning to apply it, along with every other time I’ve tried to teach him about empathy, what is appropriate to say or not, and what would be the best response in a situation. He is learning that what really matters are people and how they feel. And as evidenced by what happened on the recent backpacking trip, he’s starting to do this on his own.