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SLP Corner: The Evolution of Empathy - featured October 24, 2011

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SLP Corner: The Evolution of Empathy

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By: Kim Lewis M.Ed, CCC-SLP

Even when I entered graduate school, I knew pediatrics would be the place for me. And over the years, while I have done some work (and enjoyed it) with adult populations, kids are definitely my niche.

What has changed over the years though is my approach to both clients and their families. I don’t mean what activities or assessments I use. Of course, that evolves over time with research, trends and even fads; but how I relate to families. My empathy has shifted.

When I started graduate school, I was fascinated by the obscure. The more unusual the diagnosis, the more grim the prognosis, the more interested I was. I think at that age a need to be noticed, to have your importance in this world recognized, to validate yourself worth is common. I was certainly filled with unrealistic expectations for both myself and my clients. How many of us wanted to “change the world” or be the “miracle worker”. These are lofty, even admirable goals even if they aren’t always practical. But in retrospect, is it about your client, or about you?

A few years forward, here we are in a professional setting. I’m working independently, but on a staff of experienced therapists and I’m definitely low man on the totem pole. We have a wide range of children on our caseloads with moderate to severe disabilities. Eager to emulate my more jaded co-workers, I’ll admit, sheepishly, I sometimes fell into a “tough love” mindset, feeling it was best to spell out to parents the limitations of their child. I thought that frank, realistic expectations were appropriate in every circumstance. Honestly, that can be a little harsh.

Move ahead a few years more and I soften—literally and figuratively. I’ve two very young children of my own and I realize that taking away someone’s hope is unbelievably and unnecessarily cruel. I may need to temper “pie in the sky” expectations from time to time, but these parents do know their child’s limitations. As a mother, I know you aren’t always ready to “hear the truth” and that’s ok; it can wait. It’s a time to uplift and encourage. But during this time I think I was guilty of both pity and awe. Any new mother operating on minimal sleep, with leaking breasts and a 15 lb tote they now call a purse, is astonished by a parent able to schedule much less attend multiple therapy appointments. Yet I’m not sure this is the most beneficial attitude either. Unwittingly, we may even be increasing their burden and stress by holding them up as a role model of competency. And imagine how it feels to frequently be reminded that they are the best advocate for their child and that their home practice will be instrumental in their child’s progress. Personally, I’d be ready to pull the covers over my head.

And now here we are, a few years later. My children are 11 and 13. I’ve had untold delights and celebrations and also some heartbreaks by now. So where am I?

Most of my professional work is with children with mild/moderate impairments these days, but my personal relationships include members with more involved disabilities, not necessarily related to speech and language. I approach families reverently, realizing each is its own microcosm. I realize that a disability adds stress and rewards. That we all have an ebb and flow of crisis and healing throughout the years. I know it’s as unhelpful to drag someone along as it is to push them from behind.

The number of blogs out there by parents with children who have special needs is phenomenal. It’s an amazing chance to peer into someone else’s home life and gain some perspective. Spoiler alert: These families are happy. These families laugh and cry, hug and squabble. They are families. Those I follow regularly are: ,, ,

For me, it’s become not so much about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, it’s more about accompanying someone on their journey.

Featured Author: Kim Lewis, M.Ed, CCC-SLP

Kim Lewis M.Ed, CCC-SLP has a private practice for pediatrics in Greensboro, NC. She is the blogger at, providing creative ideas for speech therapy, and the author of the Artic Attack workbook series published by Say It Right.

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Tags: Newsletter SLP 28 October 2011 Article