Something wonderful has been happening in our family since the arrival of my baby niece a year ago – our son’s interaction with her. You may wonder what’s so special about that. Well, my 12 year old son is autistic and has difficulties in empathising with other people which means he doesn’t always respond in the most appropriate manner. However, what we are witnessing is our son responding to his baby cousin in a loving and gentle way, without any prompting by us. He cuddles her when she is tearful, he plays with her, talks to her and helps to support her when she sits on her toy pony. To see this interaction almost brings a tear to my eye for my son usually needs a lot of help to recognise and respond to other people’s feelings. For my son though, I do wonder whether the limited speech of his baby cousin makes it easier for him to bond with her, unlike older children who have developed more complex language and social behaviour which he finds confusing and unpredictable.
Nevertheless I was really interested to hear about the Roots of Empathy programme which is being used in schools in various countries across the world. The aim of the programme is to help children to recognise feelings and emotions in others and to respond appropriately. What is so unique is that the programme centres on a baby as a teacher. What happens is that a parent and baby visit the classroom and with the help of an instructor the pupils are encouraged to observe the baby and to identify its feelings. By doing this the children are helped to recognise their own feelings and the feelings of others and to develop more positive behaviour towards one another. Research suggests that the programme reduces aggression and anti-social behaviour.
I don’t know whether such a programme would specifically help autistic children but nonetheless such an innovative scheme is clearly benefiting other children and the wider society.