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Psychology Course Examines Empathy For the Atypical Experience

By Jenna Pizzi

Published on October 16, 2020

AtypicalAtypical: non-conforming, irregular, abnormal. A special topics course in psychology, “Atypical” challenges students to listen to others and learn and understand their stories, even if they are very different from their own. 

“My primary goal is for students to become more comfortable with the discomfort that is often involved in listening, especially around topics that are hard to hear or go against our assumptions or even values,” said Ashley de Marchena, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience, in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences, who launched the course for the Fall 2020 semester. 

The course examines lived experiences that do not fit our usual image of a “typical” life: people born deaf, child prodigies, criminals, or little people, to name a few.Through understanding and taking the time to truly listen to others we can help improve society, Dr. de Marchena said. 

Mark SmithMark Smith Neuro’22 said he has enjoyed the reading for this course, Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon.

As a result of this course, Smith, an aspiring Psychiatrist, was inspired to learn American Sign Language. “I have learned that there are so few medical professionals that are fluent or know any American Sign Language,” he said. “Hence, it makes it difficult for anyone within this (surprisingly large) community to receive quality care.”

Bella Galantino Psych’21 said she enjoys hearing about the experiences of families who have raised children with neurological conditions to learn about the struggles and successes during their treatment. 

“Sometimes we even see children talking about their own experiences which is very uplifting,” she said. “Overall, the class has been super positive and something I look forward to each week because it really broadens my scope of knowledge but also compassion and empathy for others.” 

Many students attending USciences aspire to be healthcare providers someday, and as such will work with patients from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of disabilities. 

“Clinical programs teach students how to diagnose and treat, but are often limited in terms of how much opportunity students get to hear patients’ personal stories of living with the conditions that bring them in for care,” said Dr. de Marchena. “I started this course to give USciences students exposure to a wide range of personal narratives of disability and difference early in their education. I hope that it will encourage them to always consider the lived experiences of their patients and practice with more humanity.”

Galantino said this course will impact her future in the medical field. 

“It is crucial to talk to patients with the utmost respect and understanding,” she said. “I think I have learned many valuable skills already in this course including how to approach a subject and use correct verbiage! This is something that I can see being helpful for the rest of my life!”

Dr. de Marchena said she enjoys listening to students’ discussions and reflections on the topics. “My students have revealed their curiosity, empathy, passion for equality and acceptance, enthusiasm for learning, and so much more,” she said. “ It is really inspiring, and my students give me so much hope for a better, more inclusive world.”

Categories: News, Students, Faculty, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Psychology,