This is Danny’s regular Q&A column, where he welcomes questions of all sorts and shares his insights as a minimally-speaking autistic man, mixed race immigrant, social justice advocate, and ever-curious soul always seeking greater mindfulness and understanding in the world! Submit questions for future issues here.
QUESTION: We would love to build empathy and understanding in our kids around autism – they are in elementary school. What would you like them to know, and any resources you can share (good stories with autistic characters, etc.)? How have others approached this?
I love this question! I will start by saying that my early childhood was so very lonely and isolated. My family surrounded me with love, but no one at school wanted to have anything to do with me. It traumatized me on top of the confusing realization that I was different. I realize now that kids are often afraid to be associated with anything “weird” or different. This is rooted in insecurity and uncertainty in how they can show empathy openly.
So, I feel that informing them is important, but not sufficient. I would suggest that you also discuss with them how to be more confident in their allyship and more generally in their integrity and kindness. This is an overarching approach that will help them be strong and kind in their lives.
Other than that, I would want them to know that disability doesn’t mean lack of awareness, feelings, or humanity. As for resources, I recommend That Au-some Book Club on Facebook and Not An Autism Mom’s website as a great community and resource, respectively, to check out!
QUESTION: How can neurotypical folks be the best ally to autistic folks?
Wow, I could write a whole book on this! For now: the main thing is to truly listen to our voices. We are diverse, and we have such varied experiences. So, specific details about allyship likely look different across the spectrum. But if you listen to our needs, experiences, and dreams, as you would with anyone else in your life, you will start to learn what we seek and hope for in allies. Treat us as real people, not as an exercise in pity. And that includes sharing fun and joy with us!
QUESTION: I am deeply interested in how autistic folk often find a warm-hearted empathy for the more-than-human world of animals, plants, water, wind, etc. Do you experience this more inclusive form of empathy?
Absolutely! I am so enamored with life and energy and the elements! It is a beautiful existence to be so sensitive and so full of feeling! It is also a reality that we autistics are often marginalized, and I think that also helps many of us develop empathy for others.
QUESTION [rephrased here for anonymity and clarity]: My 7 year-old autistic son is extremely empathetic about his younger sister’s (4 years old) emotions, so when she is crying or angry, he gets upset and becomes a bigger issue. This sometimes results in him taking out his upset on us or his younger brother. She seems to deliberately show extreme emotions in front of him now. I am wondering if it makes sense at all to try to ask him to ignore or care less about her feelings in order to reduce his own distress, or to ask her to not behave this way in front of him?
This is a tough situation. I am not qualified to provide any sort of expert advice, just insights from my own experiences as a sibling. Especially at such young ages, it can be hard to fully understand emotions and complexities of sibling relationships. For neurotypical siblings, having an autistic sibling can be an amazing window to empathy, but also a challenge – there might be jealousy of the extra attention given to the autistic sibling, or resentment for the inconveniences caused by them. These are real feelings and should be treated with understanding.
For the autistic sibling, this can lead to feelings of guilt and even shame. This can raise anxiety, which can make meltdowns and general dysregulation more likely. Simply telling them to not react will likely not help.
I wonder if starting some new family tradition where all siblings and you practice kindly sharing your feelings in a judgment-free zone could help form greater understanding and empathy among all siblings. You might try different mindfulness exercises together, like trying to imagine what each other person experiences and feels. This includes you and your feelings, too!
I will also say that autistic children are often marginalized by their peers at school. This might also impact sibling interactions. It might make these relationships more urgently important, and any disruption might be cause for high anxiety. So, reassuring an autistic sibling that their siblings being upset is not a threat to the sibling relationship might help (unless the sibling is directly upset by something the autistic sibling did to them – and that is another conversation!).
If accessible, therapy can be hugely helpful. And generally working to cultivate mindfulness will likely help children be more understanding.