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Adam Voigt: Can kids on the Autism spectrum “do” empathy?

I found myself in a very interesting conversation a couple of weeks back with a Teacher who wanted to explore the notion of whether Restorative Practices (RP) can be implemented in a school for students with special needs, such as ADHD and Autism.

She asked “I’ve been told that kids on the Autism spectrum either can’t do empathy or just don’t have much capacity to empathise. Wouldn’t this make it a waste of time to even try to implement RP in a special school?”

Given that RP is somewhat predicated on both accessing and building empathy in students, it’s a very fair question. That said, I’ve worked with several special schools to successfully implement RP … so I was up for the challenge of answering it.

The below graph is how I demonstrate my understanding of the nebulous beast of empathy to the Teachers I work with:

Empathy is both a cognitive and intuitive capability. For most adults we operate successfully from a cognitive understanding that empathy is roughly “knowing what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes” and get better, or more intuitive, over time.

With cognitive empathy, I can just know as a fact that if I swear at my teacher that s/he is more likely to be upset with me than to be proud of me.

As we grow older, most of us become more sophisticated in our knowledge of empathy and become intuitive about it. I might not have sworn, but I can tell that something I just said didn’t sit right with you. I can just see it in your face. I think I’ll backtrack through my words momentarily to make a best guess about what those words were and either try to explain myself better or perhaps apologise. All of this was founded in a hunch, an intuition, a reading of a facial expression.

It’s true that many students on the Autism spectrum struggle with intuitive empathy. And that, of course, it dependent on exactly where on the spectrum they sit. But one thing that most Teachers of students on the spectrum tell me is that “These kids are smart”. The challenges are often far more social and emotional than they are intellectual. They can even fixate on certain facts and information.

What a disservice we’d do for our students on the spectrum if we didn’t even give them the hard facts about empathy. Imagine how difficult it is to socialise or to be in a team without even a knowledge base about empathy in your toolkit.

This is why the green line is in the above graph. If we can equip these students with at least the cognition of empathy then, for many, we make them employable. It’s a harsh reality that swearing at your boss will result in not only s/he being upset, but also with you being out of work. This cognitive empathy generates independence and choice for students living with Autism, while enacting for us a deep educative purpose to put every student in our care on a positive life trajectory.

As I mentioned, many students on the Autism spectrum won’t achieve full intuitive empathy (although many have also surprised me too!). But exposure to the explicit teaching opportunities within RP, deployed in a strong, relational School Culture is the perfect environment for growing cognitive empathy – and then exploring the intuitive possibilities.

The Cheat Sheet

Don’t have time to soak in the whole article today? Here’s the big points…

Know the two types of empathy.
Know the importance of maximising empathic capability.
Create a restorative classroom culture.
Be patient. Getting empathic can take a lifetime.
Accept the responsibility to teach empathy as being core business.

The Big One

1.4 Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities.
But also …
1.1 Physical, social & intellectual development & characteristics of students.
1.6 Strategies to support full participation of students with disability.
7.1 Meet professional ethics and responsibilities.

Adam Voigt

Adam Voigt is the Founder & Director of Real Schools. Built upon years of experience as a successful Principal, Real Schools helps schools to build and sustain strong, relational School Cultures. A speaker of local and international renown, Adam has delivered a TED Talk and is the schools/education expert for The Project”.

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