Empathy in the Classroom

September 30, 2008

By Dan Coulter

Let me tell you about the worst "teacher" I ever had.

He was a salesman standing in for a trainer who’d gotten ill. He’d come to our company’s location to teach a roomful of us to use a complicated, computer controlled, multi-projector slide show system. This salesman made a classic teaching mistake. He assumed that because something he worked with every day was easy for him to understand, it should be easy for others to pick up. He rattled off information about the system in machine-gun fashion. When he repeatedly asked us if we understood something and various class members said, "No," he impatiently snapped his fingers at us and barked, "Keep up, keep up!"

Some students got disgusted and left the class at the break. Others stuck it out, but learned little.

The salesman’s failure was based on his inability to put himself in someone else’s place, understand things from that person’s point of view, and communicate information in a way, and at a pace, the person can absorb it.

Successful teachers either know these steps instinctively or learn them from experience.

Now it’s time to throw you a curve. This article is not about teachers. It’s about classmates of students who have Asperger Syndrome, High Functioning Autism or similar Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs).

Classmates can’t be expected to have the instincts or experience of teachers. Many classmates are impatient with or dismissive of students who exhibit different or difficult behaviors due to ASDs, without ever knowing the reasons for those behaviors. It doesn’t seem fair to simply get angry with these classmates, if they’ve never been given an explanation or been instructed how to interact with students who think and act differently.

There are no guarantees that educating students about ASDs is going to make all classmates more empathetic. But time after time, we’ve seen classmates who get that information become more understanding, accommodating and supportive. Especially if they’re given the opportunity to mentally put themselves in the place of a student with an ASD and see things from his or her point of view. This helps them understand the reasons for impulsive behaviors, or seemingly tactless remarks, or sensitivities to light or sound or touch. Also, an important part of any such presentation is helping classmates become aware of students’ strengths as well as their challenges.

And you don’t have to single out a child on the spectrum or disclose a specific disability to hold a class lesson or school assembly about understanding students who think and act differently. While we’ve generally found that disclosing specific ASDs to classmates is helpful, that’s a decision to be made by an individual student and his or her family.

If you’re a teacher who has a student with an ASD in your class, consulting with parents and school staff and holding an education session about autism spectrum conditions can help integrate that student into your class and teach classmates valuable life lessons about tolerance, empathy and communication at the same time.

You don’t want your students growing up to be the salesman who doesn’t bother to read his audience and fails miserably to communicate.

Imagine your students looking back on your class gratefully as they succeed in business and life using the approach to understanding and reaching people that you’ve fostered.

As they enter an increasingly complex, multi-cultural, global workplace, yours could be a class they’ll never forget. I hope someday you get letters, telling you just that.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of the Intricate Minds series of DVDs that help classmates understand Asperger Syndrome and other Autism Spectrum Disorders. You can find more information on his website at: coultervideo.com.

Copyright 2008 Dan Coulter      All Rights Reserved.     Used by Permission.

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