Autism and Empathy: My Daughter Rachel

by DRs Are The Best

We’ve been noticing something recently. Rachel really loves her brothers, Simon in particular. She has always been sensitive to his feelings, and they have always demonstrated what I call a “twin bond.” They only have to glance at each other, and they seem to have a full, detailed conversation. We have never been able to scold Simon in front of her — not because of the noise, but because it meant her brother was in trouble. I had thought that part of that was the unexpected nature of this — Simon getting scolded is outside of her control — but for the last few weeks, we’re starting to see that may not be the case, at least not in full.

A new favorite television show is Super Why. We watch it on PBS Kids’ Sprout as well as on our local public television station. She seems to be obsessed with the episode focusing on Jack and the Beanstalk because the “problem” they are trying to solve is resolving the main character’s little sister’s temper tantrum. “Joy” is crying. Screaming. She’s having a “HUMONGOUS tantrum.” Rachel has been walking around asking, “What’s the matter, Joy?” or suggesting offering a bottle to Joy to make her feel better. I’ve also been receiving notes from her teacher explaining that she has been more emotional in school lately when another student is upset. She also gets upset. She tries to cry, and is often successful.

I know this may seem strange to say, but I don’t think of this as a negative development. I think this is evidence that she is trying to determine how to express empathy. Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” I was always concerned that, because of her autism diagnosis, she might never fully be able to express or experience empathy. But she is proving me wrong lately.

I created and administer a Facebook page (We Care About Someone With Autism). Yesterday, I chose to have a day-long topic discussion about autism and empathy. The theory that an individual with autism cannot experience empathy was one of the first myths that I was exposed to when we first began our journey into the autism world. We are obviously seeing that is not the case, at least in Rachel. I was wondering what others had to say on the subject. I was pleasantly surprised to see and learn that others often see the same behaviors. The biggest difference is that these children often need to learn how to express it effectively, as this skill is one that is often lacking. I have been addressing this issue by telling Rachel to ask the “sad” person, “Why are you so sad?” I’ve only been doing this for a few days, so it’s too soon to see if this will help to resolve the problem that we are currently experiencing. But I wouldn’t really call it a problem — I’d just call it a development.

But Rachel will always feel something special for her twin brother!
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About the Author: DRs Are The Best is the mother of three children, including her twins, Simon and Rachel, who share a diagnosis of classic autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, My Family’s Experience with Autism, and is reprinted here by permission.

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4 thoughts on “Autism and Empathy: My Daughter Rachel

  1. Rachel says:

    I’m very interested in what you say about your children’s “twin bond”:

    They only have to glance at each other, and they seem to have a full, detailed conversation.

    They seem to be reading each other’s nonverbals quite well, which would show a high degree of cognitive empathy for each other. This phenomenon interests me, because I have a theory that people of like minds and internal experiences can read one another very well, and that what we call “low cognitive empathy” in autistics may simply be a function of the fact that there are more non-autistics in the world. We autistics are more likely to get it “wrong” and non-autistics are more likely to get it “right,” simply because autistic people are in the minority.

  2. Elizabeth Aucoin says:

    Many of us grow up trying to hide the feelings that overwhelm us and that still strikes people as the “wrong” response. Picture that you grow up knowing you’re different and getting rejected, not for doing anything bad, but for doing things differently or for being slow to learn social rules. As you get older, you begin to wear a mask around people, in order to cope, and you worry all the time that people will spot you anyway, especially when you’re not sure how you give yourself away. Oftentimes I will attempt to hold my emotions at bay until I’m somewhere safe to let them out because I have learned not to trust the people around me enough to just be myself. No doubt there are people who will think I have no empathy, but I know from experience that they are even more disconcerted when I have “too much” empathy. The bottom line is that our neurological differences make us “weird,” and that makes us “one of them” instead of “one of us.” If you want to see this from a spectrum perspective, picture yourself as one of the servants in a rich household who may interact but is never allowed to forget their place.

  3. Sabrina says:

    My son cries everytime My daughter is on time out crying. He reacts getting so stressed when his sister is in the middle of a tantrum. First I tough it was the loud crying Now I can se he is worried ad every time she stops he goes and check her. He suffers for her. He has also been showing a funny way to express his jealousy when I carry a baby. Something I love to see, he trying to express his feelings. :).

  4. Ilene says:

    Sabrina, that’s exactly what I was saying here. We have always had to be so careful how we scold our son because Rachel gets so upset when her twin brother is in trouble. And, being a brother, he knows how to use that to his favor….he doesn’t mind being yelled at or scolded (and can even tolerate time outs to a degree) and he will bait her. It’s one of those situations where we see typical behavior from our autistic son that we can’t really help but smile. Unfortunately, its at Rachel’s cost. But she is VERY empathetic!!!!

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