Practicing Empathy for Autism Awareness

Rachel_thumbInspired Writers Series:
Introducing Rachel Macy Stafford of “Hands Free Mama

introduction by Lisa Cadigan

Empathy is a skill with which many people on the autism spectrum struggle.  Yet it is one of the most important skills we can practice when trying to understand people with autism.  To practice, we have to try to see the world through a perspective that is often very literal, one that interprets visual information in a way that includes much more than we may collect with our own eyes, one where the details of every sound enter our ears; in short, a world where one’s senses are hyper-sensitive.  I think if many of us spent even just a short time in this world, we would find it uncomfortable at best, and we might start to see people on the autism spectrum as super heroes bravely navigating a foreign planet rather than as people who don’t meet all of society’s norms.  Perhaps this change in perspective would allow us to offer the compassion, respect and reverence that every human being deserves.

When I read the following essay by Rachel Macy Stafford, I immediately contacted her and asked her if the boy she was writing about was on the autism spectrum.  She replied, no, he wasn’t, although she had worked with several children on the spectrum in her career as a special education teacher.  I decided, with her permission, to share her story with you today anyway, in honor of Autism Awareness Month, because the essay reminds us that we, as people, have more in common than we have differences.  One of those commonalities is that we all want our successes to be celebrated, and we all have the ability to reach a higher potential when someone believes in us. When someone makes the effort to see the world from our perspective, we are happier, better people, whether we are on the autism spectrum or not.

As you move through the day today, I encourage you to practice empathy with everyone you encounter.  Try to see the world through the eyes of another, so that you may grow in understanding and compassion.


re-published with permission by Rachel Macy Stafford, blogger at Hands Free Mama

*names have been changed to protect privacy


After teaching children with severe learning and behavior issues for eight years, I was in need of a change. A first grade position opened up in the district, so I applied and thankfully was offered the position. I instantly adored my team of first grade teachers. In exchange for grade level supplies and curriculum guidance, I offered effective behavioral strategies for the most challenging students in our grade level. And on extremely trying days, I would even accept visitors from other first grade classrooms.

Gregory* was one of my frequent visitors. My students and I always knew when Gregory would be coming. We could hear his problem escalating, and then there he would be standing at our door with the work he was refusing to do in hand.

Since I had thirty students of my own to contend with, I didn’t say much to Gregory. He went straight to his spot at a table in the back of the room. He knew what he was expected to do. With his mess of brown curls and bright green eyes, the beautiful little boy pushed away his chair and fidgeted as he worked.  Although his approach was unconventional, his work was always accurate. And when he was finished with his assignments, he would draw motorcycles on the back of his paper until someone from his classroom came for him. Sometimes Gregory was with us until pre-dismissal clean up. When I instructed my class to pick up at least 10 items off the floor (with one being the “prize-worthy” piece of trash) Gregory would always pick up 20.

At the end of first semester, Gregory’s teacher, who was an exemplary educator, said she had a proposition for me to consider. She informed me that Gregory’s mother was hoping he could become a permanent student in my class. Gregory also wanted this. I could tell the teacher felt very badly that she was not able to meet his needs, so I quickly told her not to worry. I would be happy to have Gregory as my student. The principal of the school approved this unusual arrangement and after holiday break, Gregory was officially part of my class.

On his first day in my classroom, Gregory arrived shortly after the bell rang. He stood at the door just like he used to when he was sent over due to disruptive behavior. The class was busy completing their morning work, so I got up and walked out to meet him.

Although I didn’t know what was going to come out of my mouth, this mini-lecture ended up being one I’ll never forget.

“Gregory, I am very glad that you are going to be my student, but I want to make sure you understand three things about my classroom.” I held out three fingers, at which he stared a little too intently.

“One, the students in this classroom do their work when they are told to do it. Two, the students in this classroom listen to me and when they raise their hand, I listen to them. And three, the members of this classroom always, ALWAYS, treat each other with kindness and respect.”

Gregory’s eyes now held the look of surprise, as if he didn’t expect these ground rules. I definitely had his attention.

“This means that in my classroom, there is no yelling. There is no defiant behavior. There are no refusals. There is no cussing or nasty talk. So if you are planning on doing any of these things, you may as well find another classroom. That kind of behavior is not welcome here. However, if you are willing to do your work, listen, and be kind to others, then I welcome you to be a part of our classroom family.”

Then I kneeled down and looked directly into his bright eyes—he was about to hear the best part of all. “You see, I am a believer in second chances, Gregory. And today you are being given a chance to start over, start fresh, and be the person I know and you know you can be. The choice is yours, Gregory. Would you like to be a part of our classroom?”

Gregory, whose eyes were now as wide as saucers, swallowed a huge lump in his throat. “Yes, Ma’am,” he managed to squeak out.

“Okay then, let’s go meet your classmates.” I smiled and motioned him to follow me through the door.  As we entered, a quiet hush fell over the classroom. Gregory looked down at his shoes in embarrassment. I gently put my arm around his shoulders and addressed the class. “Everyone, Gregory is the newest member of our classroom family! I would love to tell you a few things that I bet you don’t know about him.”

My new curly-haired student nervously glanced up, wondering where I was going with this. I squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “Gregory is a wonderful speller. If you get stuck on a word, ask Gregory. In fact, I might even need your spelling help once in awhile. Would that be okay?” I asked with a wink.

The class looked confused. Surely, I wasn’t talking about that Gregory. Even Gregory looked down at himself to make sure I was referring to him. With enthusiasm I continued sharing more positive attributes about our newest member. “Gregory loves motorcycles. Some of the best drawings I have ever seen have been by Gregory. I am sure he would love to show you at recess.”

Gregory’s head was no longer weighed down like a dejected rag doll. He was making eye contact with the children who were now smiling brightly at him.

“And finally class, I must tell you, Gregory is a super cleaner. I have many super cleaners in this room, but now the bar has been raised. I am pretty sure I will have the cleanest room in the whole school every day at 2:35!”

Gregory looked up at me with full-on disbelief. I whispered, “Second chances,” as if it were our secret code. The most hopeful smile came across Gregory’s as he fully realized what was being offered at that moment.

Michael’s* elated voice pierced the silence in the room like candy falling from a piñata.  “Gregory! You get to sit next to me!” He vigorously patted the empty desk next to him.

Gregory’s eyes darted to the back of the room where he used to sit when he was a visitor. He looked uncertain of his place.

“Come on, Gregory!” Michael impatiently beckoned. It was then that Gregory spotted his pristine nameplate on the empty desk next to Michael. Seeing his name written in lovingly-formed penmanship seemed to convince him that there was, indeed, a place for him.

Once seated, Gregory noticed all the children had their notebooks out, so he quickly opened his and got right to work.

Gregory worked hard that day. He responded kindly to the children. He raised his hand and offered meaningful contributions to our discussions. He helped a student who was struggling with two-digit subtraction.

I wrote a special note to his mother explaining all the wonderful things Gregory had done that day. As he carefully tucked the note into his take-home folder, he couldn’t contain his excitement. With a smile that showed almost every tooth in his mouth, Gregory admitted, “My mom isn’t used to getting good notes.”

The rest of the week was equally good, but I was not naïve. I had worked with many challenging students who had a “honeymoon period” of positive behavior before any issues presented themselves. I braced myself for the day things fell apart. But that day never came. When I detected hints of misbehavior creeping up, I would give Gregory a look. He knew what I expected of him. He knew I believed in his abilities.

The second semester passed quickly. Before we knew it, the last day of school arrived. The children and I were saying our goodbyes. Gregory, who was not much for physical contact, came up behind me and unexpectedly hugged me. “Thank you for giving me a second chance,” he murmured into my back.

I turned around and looked straight into his eyes that were suddenly so full of promise and said, “It wasn’t me, Gregory. You gave YOURSELF a second chance.”

Although the following school year I was home with my new baby, I followed up on Gregory often. Much to my delight, his teacher reported he was doing well—one of her top students. And now, nine years later, I really wish I could see all the great things Gregory is doing. Most of all, I wish I could thank him.

Because of him, I give my children a fresh start each morning despite poor choices and bad attitudes the day before.

Because of him, I offer myself a do-over even when I fall short of being the parent and person I want to be.

Because of him, I strive to look for the positives in a person despite preconceived notions or past “reputation.”

Because of him, I have come to believe that one’s past does not have to determine one’s future.

Because the chance at a new beginning may appear more ordinary than we think. It can be as simple as seeing one’s name without any marks surrounding it … or being introduced to others in a positive light … or accepting a knowing smile that says, “I’ve made mistakes before, too.”

I believe second chances come in the form of an outstretched hand. Because when someone loses his way, we have the power to point out there is still a place for him—a place where he can shine his light again.

headshot125x150Rachel Macy Stafford’s mission is to provide individuals with the inspiration, motivation, and tools to let go of the distractions of the modern age so they can grasp the moments in life that matter. Join her on her journey to a more meaningful life at and by visiting “The Hands Free Revolution” on Facebook.

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