Empathy and Autism are Like Superman and Clark Kent

by Stuart Duncan

Have you ever noticed that you never see Superman and Clark Kent in the same place at the same time? That’s rather odd, isn’t it?

They both exist, although you only see Superman from time to time where as you see Clark Kent quite often. They definitely do seem quite different though… Superman holds his shoulders up high, stands tall… seems to handle people well. Clark Kent on the other hand tends to slouch, keep his head down and isn’t exactly the coolest person in the group.

I got to thinking about it, if my son was that guy… then empathy would be his Superman persona and his Autistic traits would be his Clark Kent.

Clark Kent

My wife and I have had a very trying couple of weeks… mounting stresses over mounting stresses. Nothing life threatening, we still have our health however, eventually, stresses have a way of breaking you down.

This is what happened to my wife. Eventually, one day, it became too much and she began to cry.

As I held her, my two sons sat on the couch… playing games.

After a couple of minutes, Tyler, my 3 year old without Autism, put down his game and came to us. He put his arms around us and asked his mommy what was wrong. “Mommy, why are you crying?” he asked.

Meanwhile, there on the couch sat my little Clark Kent. He knows his mom is crying. He knows that there must be something wrong, but he doesn’t even give us a second look. He just sat there, playing his game.

Superman Logo


From time to time, I get to see the superhero emerge… when he’s needed.

Most of the time, it’s for his little brother. When Tyler is hurt, or upset… Cameron is there. Whether it be due to actual empathy or Cameron not wanting to get into trouble…. he consoles his little brother. It’s not always for one reason or another but it can be hard to tell which is which sometimes.

There’s something you need to understand about Clark Kent… even though all you can see is the slouched shoulders, lowered head and introverted nature, Superman is in there.

Clark Kent won’t stand up tall but he’s still bullet proof. You just can’t see it.

Looking for Superman

Nobody looks for Clark Kent. When someone is hurt or in need, nobody expects Clark Kent to answer. They want Superman. And it can be so disappointing when he doesn’t come.

When Cameron sat on that couch, it was disappointing that he didn’t come to his mother. Not surprising, but disappointing.

We are never upset by it though, never judging. We understand… we know… empathy is in there. Inside that little slouched boy with his head down, playing his game… Superman is in there.

He didn’t give us a second look… but he did look once. He did show his concern, in his way.

When you don’t know that Clark Kent is Superman, you don’t look for Superman within him. But when you do know, you can see it plain as day. You no longer see the glasses or the posture… you see Superman, in a disguise. You see him look to the danger and make the decision to show up as Superman, or to let it be as Clark Kent.

I see empathy in my son. I see it every day and I see him make those decisions every day.

Never assume something isn’t there just because it’s well disguised. When he’s ready, Superman will be there.

About the Author: Stuart Duncan is the father of two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. This piece originally appeared on his blog, Stuart Duncan: Autism from a Father’s Point of View, and is reprinted here by permission.

4 thoughts on “Empathy and Autism are Like Superman and Clark Kent

  1. Alicia says:

    I really liked this.
    Sometimes Superman can’t show up right in front of others, he needs the right circunstances.

  2. Nice…my little Superman was there at a very, very low time in my life, not to commiserate, but to encourage. I think you are on to something.

  3. Jill says:

    I agree, I think you’re onto something. At age 19, we’re seeing more Superman moments than we ever thought possible, thank God! Hang in there – life is tough with little ones, especially when one has super-special needs, like autism.

  4. Rachel says:

    I like the Superman/Clark Kent analogy very much. Clark Kent had to spend an entire childhood learning about planet Earth before he was ready to become Superman — including the importance of staying away from Kryptonite. Your little guy needs to learn to navigate, too, because the things that don’t affect most people affect him rather intensely. Fortunately, he has you and your wife to guide him.

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