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  • Writer's pictureCindy

Practicing Empathy

It has been a heck of a week, hasn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’m fairly certain I was more anxious this week than I have been in months.

Obviously the state of the world amid a pandemic and the fact that the US was waiting for tentative results on last week’s election set the stage, but there seems to be a lot of extra tension between people around me on a person-to-person level as well.

I’m just glad last week is over so that we can try to start moving forward. Though, honestly, I think we all know things are going to be rough for a while as far as interpersonal tension goes. We seem to be at a point in history where people of differing opinions aren’t always even willing to listen to each other, so it’s no wonder we’re tense.

Oddly enough, I feel like one of the things that Nolan has taught me more than anyone else is helping me get through it one baby step at a time. What might that be? Empathy.

Now before you start thinking about how the stereotype of people with autism is that they’re not capable of empathy let’s just acknowledge that it’s just not true.

But let’s also take a moment to acknowledge that we can learn valuable lessons from people even if they’re not directly demonstrating the thing we’re learning. For example, maybe on a family road trip when you were younger you watched a sibling drink a giant soda as soon as you left the last gas station in western Minnesota. An hour or so later, you’ve found yourself in a sparsely-populated part of South Dakota, and the same sibling is getting whiney and fidgety because they need to use the bathroom. Meanwhle, the next town isn’t for another 100 miles, and the fidgety kid on the other end of the back seat is starting to panic while the driver is starting to lose patience. In that moment you’ve probably learned a valuable lesson about not drinking too much too quickly on long drives.

But being Nolan’s mom has definitely taught me to be more empathetic.

Sometimes it’s the strangers who give us dirty looks, make comments or just generally balk at us that remind me that we all need to practice empathy. And it really does take practice.

For example, I hear people all the time criticizing the way people spend their money. Things like spending money on carryout or a meal in a restaurant may seem irresponsible to an outsider… But to the person who is spending their money, it may be that they’re choosing to eat this way because mandatory overtime at work has made it impossible for them to have enough time to cook at home. Or it could be that their kitchen is unusable for any number of reasons. In other cases, a person may be struggling with depression, anxiety or another health issue or that has them too exhausted or overwhelmed to cook. Still in other cases it could simply be more efficient for that person to get an occasional takeout meal than to cook. Heck, it could even be a treat or reward. Without being in that person’s shoes, there is no way for us to know.

Yet other times, it’s more subtle things that happen between people. Things like, “I told her my dog died and she didn’t even react…” My first instinct isn’t to be outraged or assume that the person who didn’t react doesn’t care. Now my brain goes to things like, “Is that person on the spectrum or do they maybe have another invisible disability that might have affected how they reacted?” Heck, for all we know, that person was traumatized by a dog when they were a child and they’re trying not to relive that pain. Or maybe they were raised in a household where they were taught it’s not okay to show emotion and it still impacts them in their adulthood. Like I said before, we can’t know.

But what we can do is practice. And maybe that practice is what Nolan has given me most.

With Nolan, my mind always goes to “What is he not telling me?” Since he doesn’t communicate verbally, I know that I’m only getting a tiny piece of the story, and the rest is up to me.

I can either try to piece together what’s going on (Oh you didn’t make it to the toilet because last night Dad gave you your favorite high-fiber soup and then when you asked Mom for soup an hour later she gave you the same kind because she knows it’s your favorite but didn’t know that she just gave you more fiber than a single bowl of Colon Blow Cereal?), or I can accept the fact that I don’t NEED the whole picture to understand that there’s more going on than meets the eye.

I have no idea why Nolan loves the feel of his bare mattress, but he does. I accept that there's more involved here than I understand.

The truth of the matter is, Nolan’s given me enough practice that now I can start from a place of not needing to understand a situation to just accept that there’s likely more going on than I’m aware of. The situation doesn’t need my criticism or judgement. But I can almost guarantee you that the other person involved will have a better day when I practice empathy.

Honestly, I feel like we all could use some practice these days. We don’t need to know the whole story to accept that there IS more to the story. Instead of judging another person’s behavior as inappropriate, maybe we just need to give each other a little grace.

Let’s keep practicing.

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