Empathy and My Son with Asperger’s

by Elise Ronan

We hear it all the time that persons on the autism spectrum lack empathy for their fellow human beings. The “experts” have decided that our children can neither understand nor process the emotions of others, that our children cannot understand when someone is cruel or mean or hateful. Yes, there was a study done recently refuting this belief, but unfortunately, the lack of empathy mantra is widespread.

I guess these so-called experts have never met HSB.

Yes, I have written on many occasions about collegeman and his need to make the world a better place. Whether it was his speaking out about Darfur, working for Habitat for Humanity, or helping at the local food bank, collegeman has always shown an understanding and a need to make the world a better place. HSB has done his bit for charity as well. However, it never actually seemed to come from his heart, as opposed to us making him do it because it is something a person should know they are obligated to do. Charity and good works are part of the legacy we wish to give to our children. It is not something anyone learns by rote; it is something that needs to be taught, no matter the family.

Now a little bit more about HSB. HSB is quite the contrarian on many issues. He will not watch certain TV cartoons, because he has decided that they are a rip-off from other people’s works (Seth McFarlane you are on notice). He will deride you if you watch any of these shows, and he will not watch certain news shows — in fact, any news show — because they are all biased. He has even taken to not watching this season of The Big Bang Theory because he said that they have lost their initial intellectual comedy and have just gone down into the most common denominator cesspool of “sex” jokes (don’t ask). He will watch DVDs of older BBT shows; they are on his approved list.

Considering that HSB loves film, acting, and gameplay, I pity the entertainment industry if he becomes a famous critic. He will readily destroy anyone’s career if they do not meet his standards of intellect, technology, originality and, most of all, equanimity. When it comes to talking down to the masses, HSB does not “suffer fools” lightly.

HSB is also quite different politically from the mainstream. Like the rest of us in this family, you really can’t categorize him at all. For all of us, it depends on the issue, not a particular party platform. In reality, I would have to say that HSB is an old-world progressive. Not a 60’s progressive, but an early 20th century progressive. As he says, his favorite President is Teddy “McBadass” Roosevelt. He loves, loves what Teddy stood for, and how you can be a strong President, “speak softly but carry a big stick,” and yet understand the responsibility for making this nation a better place to live for all its citizens.

So what does this all have to do with empathy? Let me tell you what happened last week. HSB was in his learning center class, what they used to call the resource room. He was doing his work, and in walks a student who is not regularly present. Now, this student has issues of his own, as do quite a lot of students who are classified in school. What this particular student likes to do is start fights. He decided to start a fight with HSB.

Now, it wasn’t a knock-down, drag-out fight, only because the teacher intervened in time. A physical confrontation is what the instigator was looking for. Yes, this other child has terrible emotional problems. But that doesn’t mean we make excuses for his nastiness and that HSB has to get caught up in this child’s web of cruelty.

Unfortunately, HSB did become upset with the intolerant things that the other student was saying about gay people.

HSB believes in gay marriage, as do we all in this house. I did not bring up the subject or actually ever discuss it as a major issue in the house; he, like his brother, decided this fact for themselves. This younger generation seems to truly understand certain aspects of life and, if you ask them about the issue, they will look at you quizzingly, trying to understand why you don’t see gay people as well, people. They don’t get it. It’s not a liberal thing, as far as they are concerned. It is a human thing. (They also don’t even understand how this is a political issue when there are real concerns in the world.)

Perhaps it comes from the fact that for so long, others did not treat them like human beings, so they understand intolerance when they see it. They also don’t buy into the religious notion that it’s against God’s law. As I said, collegeman rejects religious authority, and HSB doesn’t care what religious authority says when it comes to something he considers wrong. They decided that there are many things that God would want us to be, but hateful towards other humans is not one of them. (You can believe anything you want from a religious point of view, but this is our opinion in this house.)

So, anyway, the story goes that HSB got into a verbal argument with this nasty boy until the teacher intervened by telling them both to do their work. Of course, HSB sat down and started to do his math. He was able at the moment to pull back and continue on. However, the other child wouldn’t stop. He kept going on and on about the issue and saying some rather disparaging things, from what I understand.

The resource room teacher finally told the instigator to shut up and sit his butt down. But by this time, HSB was truly upset. He had to be taken out of the room, and the speech therapist was brought in to try to help him work through the situation.

Now, the speech therapist is great with HSB. They have a wonderful relationship, and she can get him to talk through issues and helps him figure out a logical and unemotional way of dealing them. He feels safe with her, as he feels safe with his resource room teacher.

Unfortunately it did not help. HSB just could not process the horrible things that that other child had said. It ruined his day and the next one too. He just couldn’t get past the meanness and the cruelty. As I have said before, collegeman tries to understand and intellectualize these things. It makes it easier for him to understand. HSB just rejects them but has no way of working through the inhumanity. It actually carried over into the next day in school, and not until he was able to talk to his therapist did he seem to calm down.

HSB was actually weepy from it. It overwhelmed him. As a child, HSB could not read books that had any hatefulness in them. He rejected the Lemony Snicket series and had to be helped from class in middle school when they read a book that contained animal cruelty in the story. I think it’s why he will not study about the Holocaust. He could never read any of the Holocaust based books the other children read, like The Devil’s Arithmetic. It hurts his soul just too much.

During the session, the therapist did practice and work on things that HSB could have said to the instigator child. The therapist, of course, made sure that it didn’t involve put downs, but basically told the other person to go away. (You can’t win an argument with someone who is trying to start a fight. You can’t win an argument with someone who won’t listen or is emotionally troubled.) The therapist did talk with him that he can’t fix the entire world. The therapist did make him feel better and helped him realize that he is a good person and that it’s OK to be upset that other people are horrible. The therapist also helped him see that he can’t let this other person’s meanness overwhelm his right to be happy and have good experiences in life.

HSB finally calmed down and processed the event. I did tell HSB that I spoke with the school and that they are going to make sure that the instigator child doesn’t bother him anymore. HSB has had a rather pleasant experience in high school, unlike collegeman, and I would hope that his last four months in the school district would be productive and happy ones.

But in the end I am really proud of my son. He stuck up for his belief in the humanity of others; I just hope he learns to be able to handle other people’s cruelty a little better. There is a lot of meanness in the world, and we must learn to work through it. Yes, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of time to learn to be able to do just that, but it is a survival skill that all must learn. Emotional survival is something that HSB is going to have to learn. It will not be easy for him. This is his challenge. He cares too much. Not empathetic, my ass….

About the Author: Elise Ronan is the mother of two young men with Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on her blog, Raising Asperger’s Kids, and is reprinted here by permission.

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5 thoughts on “Empathy and My Son with Asperger’s

  1. Rachel says:

    Elise, I can relate so well to HSB’s struggle to shake off the impact of his classmate’s words. Particularly when I feel an injustice has been done, the feelings it triggers can follow me around for days. In the beginning, it’s not an intellectual reaction; that is, my first response is not about the breaking of a moral code. That comes later. My first response always consists of a very strong emotional reaction to intuitively understanding the impact of hate speech on people’s lives. The emotional impact then leads me to intellectually frame it as a moral issue — which, of course, it is.

    My therapist said to me recently that emotion comes before cognition, and I think this is why autistic people can often feel so overwhelmed by the kinds of things you describe in your piece. The emotional impact creates such a huge empathic response that it takes a while for cognition to come in and take charge.

  2. Ben S says:

    Elise,
    thank you for writing about this. I have good news/bad news: at 41, I still have much the same reaction as your son, and as I did when I was quite young. On one hand, I have never been adept with snappy comebacks, but I have always had a deeply felt reaction to hurtfulness and injustice.
    Like Rachel, I can carry this around for days. I have shown some progress in this area over the last decade or so (cold comfort I imagine), and sometimes have an easier time letting go.

  3. Catsidhe says:

    I react to injustice (as I perceive it) with anger.

    I spend a lot of my time angry.

    • Jayn says:

      I know what you’re talking about. Combined with my general shyness, it’s very frustrating. Since I’ve become familiar with social justice issues, I frequently find myself debating whether to speak up or not. With friends I often don’t (because I know it’s not worth it) and with strangers it’s more I can’t.

      (Though I was tempted to deck a girl at McDonald’s when she suggested that stillbirths occur when something is wrong, like autism >< This was right after I got diagnosed)

  4. Sunshine says:

    I was delighted by your son’s convictions about TV Shows! I hope he finds some great ways to cope in situations like that in the future… but wouldn’t it be nice if people just weren’t so cruel and hateful?

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