“Empathy: the action of, or capacity for, understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”
-Merriam Webster Dictionary
Although autism is a spectrum and each person has a unique set of challenges, when one thinks generally of autism, one often thinks of trouble reading others’ emotions. And yet, those on the spectrum sometimes seem to have the most empathy for our animal friends.
During a recent BAF Humane Education presentation at LA’s BEST, Lisa Potiker, Founder and Creator of Lucky Dog Humane Education, and MA Education, Early Childhood Education Specialist, witnessed that first hand when she posed the question to her class “Why do you think a pet wouldn’t want to live in a shelter for a long time?”
While answers like “They’re lonely,” and “It’s cold,” and “It’s too loud” were all excellent responses, one response stood out to her. A boy stood up and said, “I have autism, and when I don’t feel safe sometimes, I scream out or make strange movements. Sometimes I don’t feel safe in places that people without autism do feel safe. I think dogs may be the same way and they act out when places don’t feel safe to them. And they can’t explain it because the people there don’t feel the same way.”
In an instant, all the barking, the fast-tail wagging, growling, and cowering at each kennel door made perfect sense. This little boy who often felt misunderstood himself just explained how the dogs in shelters felt. They don’t feel safe so they bark. They don’t know how to react so they show their teeth. They’re frightened, so they lash out and make strange movements with their tail and ears.
When Humane Education presenters go into a school, we touch the lives of hundreds of young people. In return, every student touches our life. While we bring information about spay and neuter and about how to show compassion, each student brings who they are to the class, an individual with their own unique perspective. While some may have never even pet a cat before, others live in houses with unspayed cats who have kittens every three months. Some only know dogs as scary guards on chains at local warehouses, while others know what it is to have a dog lie by their bed every night.
It is through this gathering and sharing of stories that we learn about not only our domesticated and wild animals, but about each other. Sometimes the best way to reach a person is to meet their dog. For these kids, in their own social hierarchy that is grade school, this class offers a level playing field from which they bring their own unique experiences.
In that moment that the little boy shared his story, Lisa and the rest of the students not only learned about how the dogs in shelters can feel, but they learned about him—a child just trying to get by in a school day, experiencing the world a little differently from everybody else.
Through this class, and through that boy’s courage, everyone, including the presenter, walked away a little different from when the class had started: a little more compassionate, a little more patient, and with a little more understanding about dogs, about each other, and maybe even, about themselves.