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Empathy

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Have you ever had a friend or family member who responded to nearly every comment you made with a grimace and a curt, “Not me. I’m exactly the opposite.”? Did you feel shot down? (“Yikes, she hates me,” you thought.) Or perhaps you’ve had a friend who said, “Me too!” when you declared your love of raisin bread—even though you’re well aware she hates raisins in her food. (You can’t help but think, “What a brown-noser.”) What about those friends who walk off in a pout, and you have no idea what you said—but you know you must have said something? (“Fine!” you think. “Have fun on your own . . .”)

Or maybe . . . just maybe, if you’re lucky . . . you have one of those friends who has the knack of making you feel connected because they really listen, but they also share. They may not always agree with you, but they know how to disagree without making you feel like an idiot. You know they care about you because they’re honest with you, but they temper their comments with compassion, understanding and conscious thought, and you know they have your back because they have proven they have the courage and character to keep a confidence.

Maybe you would love to be that person, but instead you recognize yourself in one of the first three scenarios, and you’ve noticed that your approach doesn’t always work for you in helping you connect with others. If only there was an easy-to-read handbook that offered a simple model for navigating these interpersonal issues and helping you become that special person that everyone gravitates toward. (Here’s where you expect me to tell you that there is.) And surprise!—Here you go.

In his book The 3 Dimensions of Emotion, psychologist Sam Alibrando suggests that the key to success in interpersonal relationships is to balance the way we relate to one another in three emotional dimensions. Scientists refer to these dimensions as “fight, flight or freeze,” but this triad is known under many other terms. “Power, love and a sound mind,” for instance, or as psychologist Elias Porter classified them, “Assertive, Altruistic, and Analytic.” Alibrando refers to them as Red (fight/power), Blue (freeze/heart) and Yellow (flight/mindfulness).

All three dimensions add something positive to our interactions when they are in balance. But each also has a dark side: particularly when not balanced by the other two modes. For instance, if you operate primarily as Red (fight/power), you pay more attention to the differences between yourself and others. Your first emotional instinct is to diverge, and you’re the one who is likely to say, “Not me. I’m not like you.” In balance with Blue and Yellow, Red is the basis for courage, protectiveness and confidence. But without the influence of the other two dimensions, Red mode can come across as aggressive, critical, hurtful and angry.

In Blue mode (freeze/heart) you converge: you don’t want to pick a fight; you want to focus on similarities because you know that’s where you find connection. In balance, this mode is the basis for empathy and support, but without being tempered by the other two modes, Blue can come across as helpless, subservient, too deferential.

In Yellow mode (flight/mindfulness) you want to shut people out—drop out of the action, go silent and observe. In balance, Yellow is a sound mind: the basis for self-awareness, patience, calm objectivity and careful consideration. But without the empathy of Blue and the courage of Red, Yellow is left isolated, aloof, indifferent and disconnected.

In conflict, someone acting out of negative Red mode is likely to go on the attack with impatient criticism and blame. In negative Yellow, their spouse or friend might respond by retreating—going silent, disconnecting emotionally. Or a Blue spouse or friend might give up his or her agenda completely, presenting a compliant front simply to appease the other.

Most of us have developed a habitual approach based on our past experience. But with mindful self-awareness we can tweak our style. And as Alibrando points out, when it comes to managing our relationships, our style is the obvious place to start any program for change—for the simple reason that I can’t change anyone but me, and you can’t change anyone but you. But the changes we make to our own reactivity do influence the reactions of others and will usually (though perhaps not in the most extreme cases) make a tremendous difference to the overall outcome. As Alibrando says, “What are the 3 most important things to do when managing a difficult person? 1. Manage yourself first, 2. Manage yourself first, 3. Manage yourself first.”

What does that mean, practically speaking? Alibrando recommends a strategy he calls “working the triangle.” This exercise is less about focusing on what we’re doing that’s unhealthy and more about focusing on what we’re not doing that is healthy. For instance, the best way to overcome a tendency to criticize and blame (unhealthy Red), is to take the time to stop, think and listen objectively (healthy Yellow); and with the resulting calm, express your feelings (healthy Red) with kindness, in love and humility (healthy Blue).

If you have a friend or a spouse who is courageous, protective, honest and confident (positive Red), while also supportive, empathic, respectful and appreciative (positive Blue) and who responds—even to your reddest attacks—with patience and calm reflection (positive yellow) . . . then you have something to be truly grateful for this Thanksgiving. You might want to look up Alibrando’s book so you can become the same gift to them that they are to you.

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To Give A FlowerA dear friend of mine (we’ll call her Lizzy) is the single mom of two daughters. Lizzy spends her days working at our school, and her evenings and weekends engaged in activities aimed at enriching the lives of her children—and often those of their friends as well. I admire her for a number of her stellar qualities, including both her ability to remain calm under pressure, and her ever-present sense of consideration for others. She is not easily harried or disturbed, and she would hate to be rude or hurtful to anyone. This is why I was astonished that someone could make her the focus of what I like to call a “parking-lot judgment.” You know, those occasional “helpful” comments from strangers we sometimes encounter in a public place (such as a grocery store) who seem to feel entitled to make snap judgments from visible aspects of our behavior (or that of our children) and even sometimes apparently feel superior enough to share these judgments.

But someone did, and Lizzy (very understandably) was moved to vent to those good friends who are allowed onto her Facebook wall:

Dear Old Lady at the Trader Joe’s Entrance,

You don’t know me, or my family. Unless you actually listened to the phone conversation I was having with my 14-year-old, you wouldn’t know that she’d called from sports practice needing help with her diabetes. Your comment that I should ‘take my private conversation elsewhere’ doesn’t help. If you’d taken the time to notice, I was walking out of the store without groceries, which meant I’d abandoned my cart, leaving the store to be able to concentrate on my daughter’s question. You don’t know what her blood sugar was, her level of activity, or how she was physically feeling. You don’t know what her blood sugar was at 3 am, or 4 am, or what supplies she has in her backpack at practice to help her deal. You don’t know how grateful I am that my daughter is thoughtful and responsible about her medical condition, and how happy I am that she will call me for back up when she needs it.

So while you have feelings about etiquette and modern technology, consider that there are issues at play that you know nothing about when you throw your zinger to a stranger. Consider that you are rattling a mother who is operating on little sleep, and is troubleshooting a relentless, unfair, and endlessly complicated medical issue with her brave, wonderful daughter who doesn’t deserve this monster of a disease.

Peace, Old Lady. Be nice.

Meanwhile, far away in another galaxy—or at least, another Trader Joe’s parking lot—an entirely different transaction was underway. You can read details in Lauren Casper’s post titled*, “To the Trader Joe’s Employee Who Noticed My Family in the Parking Lot.” It may be sufficient to say here that Lauren found herself in a similar position to Lizzy in that she was also the potential brunt of a variety of interpretations of her behavior (or that of her children). The main differences, perhaps, were that she and her child were dealing with autism, and her distress was perhaps more readily apparent than Lizzy’s.

In Lauren’s case, as she fled TJ’s with her husband, one screaming child, and another in tow—certain that judgments about her maternal failures were erupting in the minds of many of those around her (and she was probably right)—a TJ’s employee followed her out to the car and presented her with a bouquet of flowers accompanied by extremely encouraging words that made her day.

What made the difference between Lizzy’s and Lauren’s experiences? The luck of the draw, we could say. In each case, the circumstances might have been much different depending on which of the onlookers chose to speak and which chose not to. (Probably in both cases there were bystanders who could have encouraged as well as those who could have gone “judgy**.”)

But an important lesson we can come away with as we leave the parking lot is embodied in something radio legend and personal development guru Earl Nightingale once said: “When you judge others, you do not define them, you define yourself.”

Well, that’s a little scary. But think about it. Go back to Lizzy’s example. How do you feel about the older lady who berated a struggling mom for the imagined offense of having a private phone conversation in public?  Now think about the TJ’s employee who handed flowers to a struggling mom dealing with a screaming child? Which responder showed themselves to be more mature? How true are Nightingale’s words to you? How likely are you to engage in parking-lot judgments from now on?

And one last question. If these principles apply to strangers, how much more to family members and friends?

___________________________________________

*People are “entitled” to opinions, etc. Posts, movies and books are “titled.”

**Judgy IS in the dictionary. Or at least, the “Urban” one.

I got you on the “how to live forever” part, didn’t I? Okay, it depends on your interpretation of forever, but let’s just say “longer than you might otherwise expect,” especially when you consider your other life habits. But what does health and longevity have to do with the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania? You probably have a general idea of where I’m going with this, but pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass of (red) wine anyway. If you haven’t heard this story before, you’ll find it a cool little piece of Italian-American history.

                                    

The Roseto Effectnce upon a time in America, as long ago as the 1950s, there was a physician named Benjamin Falcone who practiced in Pennsylvania near the small towns of Bangor and Nazareth. During the 17 years he had been treating patients in the vicinity, Dr. Falcone noticed that older residents from a third nearby town, called Roseto, hardly ever needed to be seen for heart problems, even though the rate of heart attacks within the other two towns, and across the United States in general, were increasing steadily.

Could it have something to do with their relative seclusion? The inhabitants of Roseto had emigrated almost en masse from an Italian village called Roseto Valfortore, located in the province of Foggia. Hoping to escape poverty in their homeland, about 1,200 inhabitants of Roseto Valfortore had been issued passports bound for America by 1894. After they arrived, existing cultural pressures and social restrictions prevented them from scattering and melting into the local populations, so they eventually built their own community on a rather confined hillside, essentially separated from nearby English, Welsh or German immigrants. By 1912, Roseto’s population had exceeded 2,000 and it incorporated to become the first American municipality governed by Italians. By the time Dr. Falcone began to notice the extraordinary heart health of its residents, Roseto was a thriving town, accepted and even admired by neighboring Bangor and Nazareth, and served by the same doctors and hospitals.

One day, Dr. Falcone attended a local medical society talk given by a visiting physician from the University of Oklahoma, Dr. Stewart Wolf, who frequently spent summers at a nearby farm. Dr. Falcone invited Dr. Wolf out to a local pub for a beer and in the course of their conversation, mentioned the strange phenomenon he had noticed in the Roseto residents.

It was now 1961, and Wolf was intrigued enough to engage some of his colleagues from the University of Oklahoma in taking a deeper look at the Roseto effect. Along with sociologist John G. Bruhn, the research team began to compare medical histories, physical exams, and lab tests in a large sample of Rosetans—as well as the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth—hoping to find the key to the apparent health and happiness of this unusual community.

What they found stymied them. Yes, the evidence confirmed it was true that coronary heart disease and death from myocardial infarction (heart attack) was strikingly lower in Roseto than in its neighboring towns. Importantly, mental illness (including senile dementia) was also much lower: half the rate of Bangor, and only a third the rate of Nazareth. But at first, no one could understand why.

“The findings were surprising because of a greater prevalence of obesity among the Rosetans,” wrote Wolf and Bruhn in their report, published in 1979 under the title, The Roseto Story: An Anatomy of Health. “A meticulous study of dietary habits established that Rosetans ate at least as much animal fat as did the inhabitants of Bangor and Nazareth.” This was reflected, not only in the high obesity rates of Roseto, but also in the fact that the town’s rates of hypertension, diabetes, and measures of serum cholesterol concentration closely matched those of the other communities. Smoking and exercise habits were also similar, and the researchers were able to eliminate ethnic and genetic factors from the mix. After all, inhabitants who left Roseto to live in other communities soon became subject to the higher death rates that plagued the rest of the nation.

What, then, could explain Roseto’s strange effect? (And no, people weren’t drinking from a special communal well or making mysterious concoctions from South American miracle plants). Having already ruled out diet, exercise, genetics, and other factors that the medical community has long believed to be “risk factors” for heart disease, the researchers turned to studying the way Rosetans lived.

What they discovered was that their initial rejection by outlying communities had forced Rosetans to turn to one another for support and mutual help. Ultimately, the researchers found, the only real differences between Roseto and its neighboring communities were social ones. Roseto’s citizens enthusiastically took on the responsibility of being their neighbor’s keeper.

The researchers described the character of the townsfolk as buoyant, fun-loving, enterprising, optimistic, cohesive, and mutually supportive. “Our first sociological study of Roseto revealed that crises and problems were coped with jointly by family members with support from relatives and friends,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “Following a death in the family, interfamilial differences were forgotten, and the bereaved received food and money from relatives and friends, who at times temporarily assumed responsibility for the care of the children of the bereaved. When financial problems arose, relatives and friends rallied to the aid of the family, and in instances of abrupt, extreme financial loss the community itself assumed responsibility for helping the family.”

In addition, families weren’t secretive. Their problems were shared—and then worked out with the help of the local priest or family “pillars.” Pillars were often older single women in the community who had taken on the responsibility of aging parents and who were highly respected and valued for their role in maintaining cohesive family and community ties.

In Roseto, nearly everyone had a vital role to fulfill—whatever their age or gender. At the end of the day, they gathered together in each other’s homes, social clubs or the local diner. But the cornerstone of life in Roseto was the family. “Family traditions provide a buffer in times of crisis and a source of stability for the community,” wrote the researchers in their 1979 report.

Of course, even in Roseto life wasn’t always rosy, and a good study wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at the “outliers,” or those whose circumstances were remarkably different from the main sample. There were some who were marginalized in Roseto, either because they had no ethnic or social ties within the community or because, for whatever reason, they had been excluded or had excluded themselves from the community’s social culture. Like their neighbors in Bangor and Nazareth, these marginalized Rosetans showed a higher incidence of illness and myocardial infarction than the general population. Indeed, in one case history, a seemingly healthy “Mr. F.” commented to the researchers (five years before he died of a heart attack) that “I don’t fit in the town—I don’t live like they do—I’m not like the Rosetans.”

He was not the only marginalized inhabitant who missed out on the health benefits of living in Roseto. “Hard work and family and personal problems were common to most of them,” wrote Bruhn and Wolf. “In addition they emphasized self-reliance and responsibility for their own actions and hence enjoyed little or no family or community support in times of crisis.”

With these observations in hand after two years of study, it wasn’t difficult for the researchers to predict in 1963 that, “If and when Roseto’s traditional close-knit, mutually supportive social structure began to crumble . . . the town’s relative immunity to death from myocardial infarction would gradually come to an end.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened. As Roseto gradually became Americanized, adopting what the researchers called “materialistic and individualistic values,” mortality from heart attacks shot up, reaching the prevailing rate in Bangor by 1975. Unfortunately, the study didn’t follow up on mental health effects, but there is no shortage of more recent research linking mental health and well-being to social support—or indeed linking physical health to mental health.

Can materialistic and individualistic values really do so much harm to the health of a community? Isn’t independence one of the greatest gifts we can give our children?

It’s a valid question. As parents we certainly want our children to grow up knowing how to dress themselves, regulate themselves and exercise a great deal of the trait that we call “independence.” But as you consider independence in terms of community, also consider that the human brain is not only itself a mass of connections that feed the health of mind and body, but the stability of these connections is maintained and supported by reliable interconnectivity with other human brains. And contrary to the fears of some, you can’t have “too many” connections. You may not treasure them all equally, but all serve a purpose and contribute to the larger safety net that is community.

That said, I wouldn’t dream of arguing with Monty Python: “We’re all individuals! Yes, we ARE all different!” But we are individuals who, because we are human, are pro-social beings. Whether we like it or not, this makes us interdependent, and that’s not so bad—in fact, it’s actually the way of all living things.

Of course, if you prefer, you can try to do “forever” on your own . . . but the odds aren’t going to be stacked in your favor.

 

 

RELATED RESEARCH:

Humans Are Happier when They Do the Right Thing; It Also Helps Them Overcome Difficulties

June 12, 2013—Communities that stick together and do good for others cope better with crises and are happier for it, according to University of British Columbia researcher John Helliwell and colleagues. Their work suggests that part of the reason for this greater resilience is the fact that humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social‘ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others. The paper is published online in Springer’s Journal of Happiness Studies.”

Heart Disease Risk Linked with Spouses’ Social Support

February 6, 2014—Matters of the heart can influence actual heart health, according to new research. A study from researchers at the University of Utah shows that the ways in which your spouse is supportive—and how you support your spouse—can actually have significant bearing on your overall cardiovascular health.

People Who Are Socially Isolated Experience More Pain after Hip Replacement

October 27, 2013—Could being socially isolated affect how well you do and the amount of pain you experience after surgery? Researchers at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) set out to test this hypothesis. They found that people who lacked good social ties were much more likely to experience serious, ongoing pain following total hip replacement surgery two or more years after the procedure.

People Mean Most for our Collective Happiness

October 7, 2013—Swedish soccer star Zlatan is associated with happiness, but not iPhones. A new study at the Sahlgrenska Academy and Lund Universitysuggests that our collective picture of what makes us happy is more about relationships, and less about things.

PeopleWho Needs Them?
 Nov 2, 2011 … As much as our inner cowboy might like the idea of riding off alone into the sunset, real people cannot thrive that way.
Comfee Dolls by Griefwatch

Comfee Dolls by Griefwatch


You know how sometimes you just keep tripping over the same idea all day long, and you think: Maybe I should write about this? Well, the thought that has been popping up for me today—and I suppose all week to tell the truth, is the word 
comfort. What does comfort mean to you? Maybe you’ve never given it much thought. Nor had I until this week, but I  was finally curious enough to look it up in the Online Etymology Dictionary.

As a verb, the word comfort (the aforementioned dictionary says) comes from the late 13th-Century term conforten, meaning “to cheer up, console.” It’s from an Old French term conforter, meaning “to comfort, to solace; to help, strengthen.” This, in turn, comes from a more decisive Late Latin term meaning “to strengthen much.”

To less precise minds (like mine perhaps) there might be a shorter way of getting to the same idea. “Con/com,” (we all know that means together) and “fort,” something you hole up in to fight off a real or imagined enemy. When I was a kid we made forts out of piles of leaves the city dumped on our vacant lot so my father could till it under the next spring and turn our North Carolina clay into something he could grow vegetables in. There are good guys and bad guys when you’re playing fort, and the ones fighting with you to protect the fort are so undeniably on your side that even at the age of 8, no one had to explain it to me.

I really think this childhood imagery sheds important light on the subject of comfort, which the etymological dictionary somehow entirely misses. It’s too tempting to stand off to the side and posture as the “strong one” telling the “weak one” how they ought to deal with the fight; and then go merrily home to curl up with a Good Book, forgetting about the whole thing. But wait. If we’re together in a fort . . . your sadness is my sadness, every missile that hits you hits me. I feel what you feel, I’m in there with you. Now, that kind of friendship gives comfort.

But who hasn’t had the experience of suffering while well-meaning but detached friends gather to throw advice at you safely from one side while a threat still looms on your other side? They are determined they will prove their worth by being an example of strength and wisdom. Without actually saying it, they manage to convey how lucky you are to have them alongside to support you with pat sentiments and just the right pithy quote. They are the friends of Job; the Grande Dame, bringing a basket of goods (baked by her servants) to the poor townsfolk. If you’ve had this experience and you’re like me, you came away with the clear understanding that such a person doesn’t know how to be (or care to be) in the fort alongside you fighting off the enemy and feeling the stress with you. Much easier to offer you the dictionary kind of comfort that can be telegraphed from miles outside of the fort: “Oh, sorry this is happening, but just keep keep calm and carry on! Would you like a muffin?”

This isn’t to say that you have to be in near proximity to someone to fight in the fort with them. You can be far away in miles and suffering in the fort—and you can live next door and be emotionally distant. No, hunkering down in the fort together requires connecting in your heart and mind in ways that only the inner-most circle of your friends, or those whose similar experiences are still fresh in their minds, will take the time to do with you. This doesn’t lessen the value of your other friends, we need all levels of friendship. But it does tell you where your inner circle is.

As some of these thoughts were churning in my mind this week, one of my three daughters came home from a two-year absence and while we were chatting casually in my home office, she picked something up from my bookshelf almost absent-mindedly. It was a Comfee Doll, something I found a couple of months ago at the Childhood Grief and Traumatic Loss conference that I attend every year.

The Comfee doll is a cuddly and loosely doll-shaped bean bag scented with yummy herbs like lavender. You can put it in the microwave to warm it up, but you don’t have to. It’s just as comforting to snuggle with at room temperature. Kids love them, but as I learned from the reaction of my adult daughter—and from my own as well—you don’t have to be a kid to appreciate them.

“Oh, but how shallow is this?” you’re surely thinking now. “She starts off talking about making real connections when you’re suffering; and ends up implying that  an inanimate pile of beans, herbs and fuzzy cloth could take the place of human companionship.”

Well, judging from the way I’ve seen people try to comfort children in the past, I might venture to say that many of those kids would have been far better off with a Comfee Doll than facing the realization that nobody is interested in engaging with them in the trenches. And that impression is only reinforced when I see how children and adults alike cling like drowning men to these non-judgmental, soft and cozy, sweet-smelling, hug-in-a-bean-bag creatures.

Yes of course—we’d all prefer a real person fighting in the fort with us when it gets right down to it. But I’d have a Comfee Doll over a Grande Dame with a basket of croissants any day, and I’m willing to bet you would too. And even if you’re lucky enough to have the best of companions who are willing to hole up in the fort to endure the wearying bombardment alongside you, there will always be those times when sleep eludes and a Comfee Doll is just the thing to help you drift off into a much-needed lavender-scented dream.

Autism Awareness Month isn’t primarily for people on the spectrum and their families—although, of course, they benefit from the discussion too. But more importantly, all this talk about autism is meant to help the rest of us learn to communicate with those who already know about autism from the inside. It’s for you and me.

So, as we near the end of April, I’d like to ask the general, neurotypical (as far as you know) population a couple of questions: Have you learned something new about autism this month? If so, what was it, and do you think it will change the way you relate to those on the spectrum who may be in your extended family, your school, or your community? Before you decide you have nothing to say, please watch the following 10-minute video and click on just one or two of the links below. If you still feel you haven’t learned anything new, I hope you’ll respond anyway—it’s always encouraging to know I’m writing to an especially well-informed audience.


Carly’s story may not be new to you; the ABC segment originally aired in 2008. But when I showed it to my nine-year-old, she immediately thought of a classmate who often wears noise-reducing headphones for autism. I’d like to think it will help her understand his behavior just a little bit better.

Of course, it’s important to remember that there is as much individuality on the spectrum as off. Carly’s experience is her own. But her perspective does offer one window into what autism is like. And it may also raise other questions. Why do children like Carly experience the world the way they do? And what causes autism in the first place?  These questions are harder to answer, but researchers have been tackling them with gusto in very recent years. As promised, here are ten of their recent findings that add to our understanding. I’ll try to give them some context, but Carly may already have done some of that for us. Remember what she said about input overload?

Autism Linked with Excess of Neurons in Prefrontal Cortex

November 8, 2011—This study by researchers at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence shows that brain overgrowth in autism involves an excess number of neurons in areas of the brain associated with social and cognitive development, as well as communication development. Not just a small overgrowth: they found 67 percent more cortical cells—a type of brain cell only made before birth—in children with autism. The findings suggest that the disorder may arise from “prenatal processes gone awry,” says lead researcher Eric Courchesne.

Of course, more brain cells may cause problems because you take in a lot of information you don’t need; but it also may confer some advantages:

People with Autism Possess Greater Ability to Process Information, Study Suggests

March 22, 2012—People with autism have a greater than normal capacity for processing information even from rapid presentations and are better able to detect information defined as ‘critical’, according to a study published today in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Autism Severity May Stem from Fear

November 29, 2012—This BYU study finds that children with the diagnosis struggle with letting go of fear when a threat has passed. And the higher their level of fearfulness, the more severe their classic symptoms of autism, such as repeated movements and resistance to change.

This research highlights the need to help children with autism process their emotions, especially when they are fearful, but it also points to why so many studies have found similarities in the brain between children with autism and children who have been exposed to long-term childhood trauma: both show deficits in social development and some processes related to empathy. It’s important to clarify here that “deficits in the empathy centers” is NOT the same thing as “lacking in empathy.” There are two basic parts to empathy: the ability to feel what others are feeling through emotional contagion—and the ability to understand that other people’s minds are separate from yours. Children diagnosed with autism are thought to have the opposite problem to psychopaths. Psychopaths have theory of mind, but they lack what Bruce Perry calls the “emotional, caring core needed for compassion.”

Children with autism, on the other hand, have the capacity for compassion in spades but they may have significant delays in learning to separate the hurts of others from their own, which would, of course contribute to their sensory overload, and a need to dissociate. This affects their ability to develop the social skills necessary to bond with others.

Remember when autism was thought to have been caused by “refrigerator mothers”? Parents who were thought to be so “cold” that they didn’t bond with their children? Well, it’s true that severe neglect can cause symptoms that look very much like autism. But in autism, it’s the brain’s heightened sensitivity and information overload that interferes. Not a lack of loving parents. Fortunately, neuroplasticity comes to the rescue:

Early Autism Intervention Improves Brain Responses to Social Cues

October 29, 2012—An autism intervention program that emphasizes social interactions and is designed for children as young as 12 months has been found to improve cognitive skills and brain responses to faces, considered a building block for social skills.

Of course, to intervene early enough, we have to be able to detect autism earlier than we have been able to in the past.

Detecting Early Signs of Autism in the Brain

January 26, 2012—In their first year of life, babies who will go on to develop autism already show different brain responses when someone looks at or away from them. Only a first step toward earlier diagnosis, the findings suggest that direct brain measures might help predict autism in infants as young as six months.

Next steps toward earlier diagnoses would be to learn about where autism begins. When do the first changes in the brain begin to show themselves? If you clicked on the first study in this list and played Eric Courchesne’s video, you heard him say that the overgrowth of neurons occurs between the 10th and 20th week of pregnancy. And the epigenetic trigger has to come before the overgrowth, right? The following studies offer additional pieces of the puzzle.

Researchers Identify Epigenetic Signatures of Autism

November 7, 2011—We’ve known for some time that there are a number of genes associated with autism. But we also know from twin studies that having those genes doesn’t necessarily predict autism. This tells researchers that something in the environment has caused a gene to “express,” or activate.  Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School are the first to map these “epigenetic” changes in neurons from the brains of individuals with autism.  The question is, can we isolate when these changes are happening? Check out the next study:

Autism and Schizophrenia Genes Only Active in Developing Brains

February 12, 2013—We saw this coming, didn’t we? Genes linked to autism [and schizophrenia], are only switched on during the early stages of brain development, say researchers at the University of Oxford. This study adds to the mounting evidence that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. (Which simply means it originates during early brain development.)

Gene Expression Abnormalities in Autism Identified

March 22, 2012—A study led by Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., director of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine has, for the first time, identified in young autism patients genetic mechanisms involved in abnormal early brain development and overgrowth that occurs in the disorder. The findings suggest novel genetic and molecular targets that could lead to discoveries of new prevention strategies and treatment for the disorder.

Epigenetic Changes Shed Light on Biological Mechanism of Autism

April 23-2013Scientists from King’s College London have identified specific patterns of epigenetic changes involved in autism spectrum disorder by studying genetically identical twins who differ in autism traits.  We’ve already talked about the fact that previous twin studies have shown both strong genetic as well as epigenetic components to ASD and Courchesne’s studies tell us the genes in question are involved in brain development which occurs during the second trimester of pregnancy.

There is still a lot left to learn, and it is certain that we won’t turn up any simple causes or solutions. The interplay between genetic and environmental influences is complex. But I’ll leave you with this intriguing study that hints at how huge that complexity might yet prove to be.

Women Abused as Children More Likely to Have Children with Autism

March 20, 2013—Women who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as children are more likely to have a child with autism than women who were not abused, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Those who experienced the most serious abuse had the highest likelihood of having a child with autism—three-and-a-half times more than women who were not abused.

You’re never too young to be a teacher. At least, that’s Mary Gordon‘s philosophy.

The founder of a program called “Roots of Empathy,” which brings babies into classrooms to teach children in grades K through 8, Gordon is an internationally recognized educator, social entrepreneur and parenting expert who has established empathy-based educational programs that are now public policy in Canada while also having been implemented around the world.  Her Roots of Empathy program has proven particularly instrumental in bringing about dramatic changes in student behavior, helping them build core competencies that can generalize to the home environment as well as to the community.

Why bring babies into the classroom? “Roots of Empathy places babies in the role of teachers because babies love without borders or definition,” Gordon writes in her book about the program. “To the baby every child in the class is a new experience and she is ready to engage with all of them. In her worldview there are no popular children and no nasty children. What the baby does see, over and over again, are the children who are unhappy or troubled, and she usually reaches out to them. Children who have felt alienated or excluded are drawn into a circle of inclusion through the empathic contact made by the baby.”

Empathy, of course, is fundamental to solving the world’s most serious issues; and without the ability to extend it, there is no such thing as moral identity.

Gordon points to some of the bloodstains on the pages of human history, such as the Holocaust, to ask why some people were passive—or even active—participants, while others risked their lives to help victims and bring about change. “The difference lies in our capacity for empathy, our ability to identify with the feelings and perspectives of others,” she concludes. “If we cannot see the other person as human like us, we will not be able to identify with him. If we cannot put ourselves in his place, we will not recognize his experiences and feel what he feels. This failure of empathy at best leads to complicity and apathy; at worst, it leads to cruelty and violence.”

We like to think that nothing like the Holocaust could ever happen again. And perhaps it won’t if the next generation grows up understanding how to see others through a baby’s eyes.

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Further Reading:

Take an Empathy Pill and Call Me in the Morning

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