Empathy: An Honest Discussion


By: Shea Dodson, MS, BCBA

As a behavior analyst, it is my job to ensure that I am being an effective agent of desirable change in my clients’ lives; however, I do not and never will fully understand your special circumstances as a mom, dad, aunt, uncle, grandparent, step-parent, foster parent….and the list goes on. Furthermore, as a single woman, I am not armed with the ability to interpret the impact a child with special needs has on a family, marriage, or bank account; yet, I am not without profound concern that whomever is placed under my care receives the attention I would expect for my children.

This is where the topic of empathy is concerned. How do we, as BCBAs, tutors, and overall professionals, balance the individual concerns of caregivers while also utilizing our clinical judgment to most effectively evoke progress?  Is a parent’s desire to have their child tolerate a certain sports jersey any more important than teaching them to independently dress themselves? Are we more empathetic therapists when we tackle a problem behavior in a way that is not empirically validated, yet is more preferred by a caregiver? The short answer is no.

While I may not know the hourly occurrences within my client’s home life, I do know their behavior while under my supervision. I, we, have tailored their programming to their individual needs—everything from food acceptance and vocal shaping to initiating appropriate interactions with other teenage/adolescent peers. No detail is ever randomly thrown in to “see how it goes”; though we may be scientists, we do not treat these children as science projects. To me, this is the most empathetic aspect of what we do.

No, we cannot step into your proverbial parent/caregiver shoes, but we can in fact slip into our own pair of caregiver shoes—clad with treatment plans, data, and a genuine desire to tackle a problem. Thus, this would mean that the term caregiver we most commonly refer to neglects the time, effort, and work we put into highlighting the unique gifts each and every child we come into contact possess. We too celebrate in the joys of their first successful bite of broccoli after months of tantrums; we are delighted when we hear “music” uttered for the first time; and we are practically over the moon when these children can understand figures of speech…though of course we’re not literally over the moon, but we are on your team.

In the end, we want to see your children succeed, and as their temporary caregivers for 2-6 hours a day, the most effective way of empathizing is by tackling their needs with a behavior analytic approach.

For more information on treatment options or ABA therapy, contact Reaching Milestones today.