Autism & Empathy (A LOT of it)

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There is a common misconception that people who have Autism lack empathy. I beg to differ. Autistic people may have difficulty at times understanding the emotions of others around them (honestly, don’t we all?), but that does not mean that they lack empathy. They may just respond to the feelings of others in an unconventional way, and we need to work harder to understand and appreciate those reactions.

My youngest son is Autistic and cares very much about his family and friends. Hugs might be a little too tight or knock you down, but they are meant with every inch of his body. The intensity of his Big Feelings can also cause him to act out at times, and the Little Ninja has needed coaching over the years to learn how to more properly express his empathy. For example, when he was four years old we needed to do some allergy testing on his big brother. It took all the strength of both the nurse and me to hold the Big Ninja down for the blood draw, and he cried and was very upset. That was too much for my tiny vigilante to handle. When we were done my youngest rushed at the legs of the nurse and started swinging, yelling, “You leave my brother alone!” Luckily she was a good sport about it, and was impressed at the passionate way he defended his big brother. I had a talk with him later about finding less physical ways to stand up for people. This is an especially important lesson for the times that he misinterprets a situation.

There are other times that my son feels so intensely for other people that he is overwhelmed by his emotions and doesn’t know what to do with it. For example, I was recently upset when a “news” page took an Autism-related story that had first appeared on my website and repackaged large parts of it, using quotes and pictures without giving any credit to SNB. What’s worse is that the offender was given the source credit when the Huffington post later covered the same story. For some reason I decided to tell the Little Ninja about it at bedtime, I guess because the story had to do with Autism. He got very quiet and closed his eyes. I thought he was simply tired at first, and then I got him to look at me. His eyes were brimming over with tears and his lip was quivering. He raised his voice and told me how UNFAIR that was and proceeded to get very upset at the situation. I had temporarily forgotten that the Little Ninja can NOT abide injustice, and is a fighter and defender. I regretted burdening him with my minor disappointments, especially right before bedtime.

Sometimes the Little Ninja is very blunt, but exceedingly sincere with his caring and compassion. He says out loud the things that other people often only THINK, but it can catch people off guard. Several years ago we stopped by the hospital to see a dear friend who was holding vigil by the bedside of her ailing father. The prognosis was not good, and I was honest with the children about the situation. My sweet son walked up to our friend, and with huge eyes full of sadness he said to her, “I’m so sorry that your Dad will probably die today.” I gasped inwardly, and was worried that the starkness of his comment would upset her. She looked at him, his eyes full of sorrow and sincerity, and drew him in for a hug. She later told me that she found comfort in his caring and honesty, even if his comment was a bit surprising.

And now for my favorite example. One of my son’s classmates that he likes a lot suffered a burn injury on her leg (that part I DON’T like) and we were told she may miss the last month of school. When I informed the Little Ninja he was very sad, and asked, “Can we maybe go visit her, and help her or something? Maybe cheer her up?” What a considerate boy! I know a lot of TYPICAL kids who wouldn’t think to say something like that.

Each of the students made their injured classmate a card. Below is the Little Ninja’s.

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The front page said, “That burn must hurt an awful lot.” Below it was two drawings captioned,  “What it looks like,” and “How it must feel.” Oh my! I hope that his young friend did not find the sight of an entire leg on fire to be upsetting. In situations like that I have to hope that people will take his comments or actions in the spirit in which they are intended.

The inside was adorned with 3-d details and helped put a more positive spin back on things. The little heart and smiley face fold away nicely, and then pop up when the card is opened. I LOVE IT! He also wrote, “Water can’t fix it, but I’m sure love can! Get well soon!” What a sweetheart. The Little Ninja’s teacher told me that she cried when she read that part.

Since we live near the student we were given the important task of delivery. This is a picture of him walking to her house to deliver the cards and also some makeup work. He was happily swinging his arms and reciting lines from The Lego Movie. The hat was from a fundraiser from the night before and he insisted on wearing it. Gotta love his individuality.

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When we arrived at her house he said apologetically, “Here is your work.” He then happily said, “And here are some cards we made for you! Mine is probably the most loving.” I had to laugh, mostly for sheer joy at how wonderful my child is. I am incredibly proud of my creative and EMPATHETIC boy.

In closing I will admit that my point of view is limited because I am not Autistic (although I am not what you would call Neurotypical either). If you wish to comment I welcome any input, especially from Autistic individuals who want to share their thoughts on the subject. I hope I represented things correctly. My observations are made as a mother who is simply trying to do the best to support, appreciate, and understand her wonderfully unique son.

(A version of this post also appeared on the website The Mighty.)

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7 thoughts on “Autism & Empathy (A LOT of it)

  1. Autism Mom May 30, 2015 / 4:33 AM

    I think my guy has so much empathy that he sometimes can’t handle it and will shut down, which could make him look like he is not empathetic. Clearly, there is a lot more research to be done. Great post, thank you for raising this important issue!

    Like

  2. Full Spectrum Mama June 1, 2015 / 5:52 AM

    Agreed.
    And there’s a big difference between sensing social clues and “showing” “appropriate” empathy and actually feeling it.
    Love love LOVE your son’s wisdom and integrity and honesty and huge heart. Sounds familiar 😉
    Love,

    Like

  3. Mrs. A July 2, 2015 / 9:39 PM

    What a big, big heart your guy has! I completely agree that actions speak louder than words. People can say that they care, but it’s the people who show up, hug you, cry with you, and bring you hand-made cards who really care!

    Your stories remind me of our son (who BTW, just received his ASD diagnosis about a month ago). He hugs harder than he should, vehemently defends his little sister, winces in actual pain when he hears about the pain of others (and often holds his hands over his ears when he hears that sometime bad happened to someone. He has amazing levels of joy, and heart-breaking levels of sadness. He’s got a big, bit heart and we wouldn’t change it for one bit.

    Thank you so much for your blog posts. They have meant a lot to me. 🙂

    p.s. Our son also broke his femur 2 weeks ago – it’s a spiral break that required surgery, a metal plate and 8 screws to repair. He will be in a wheelchair for 10 weeks. The nurses and staff were so amazed at how resilient he was and how well he responded if things were just explained to him. He kept saying, “On a terrible scale, this is just a 6. I could have broken both legs, or lost my legs, or lost my legs and arms. Then, I would have had to invent a robot body. That would have been cool . . . but I’m glad I just broke my leg.” That is pretty awesome.

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    • I had to laugh a little at that last part… what a sweet, remarkable boy! Too bad no robot body, though ;). Hope his recovery goes well!!!
      Thank you so much for your kind words. Our kids are pretty awesome!

      Like

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