The Accidental Autist: Empathy Made Me Do It

by Grayson

I remember, as a young child, how I lived in my own world. Of course, back then I didn’t frame it that way. I was just living, just being me. The realization that I was not functioning sufficiently in the larger, outer world came in stages as I aged and people began to expect me to behave in accepted ways, of which school is the quintessential playing field.

School threw my differences into stark relief. It would be inaccurate to say I noticed this right away. I still lived, quietly satisfied, whole, happy, in my own world. Only as schoolmates taunted me, pushed me to the ground, laughed at me, and called me retard, did I realize I was doing something wrong. Only as teachers corrected me, prompted me to speak up, called me to attention, did I realize I was not behaving correctly.

Because I have always been a loving, empathic child, prone to internalizing others’ expectations and attempting to fulfill them, I began to work on fitting in. Paying attention in class. Learning to use words and intonation the way other children used them. I made it my supreme aspiration to behave appropriately, to meet their expectations of normalcy. And I succeeded quite well.

I learned not to rock back and forth. I learned not to make the face that “makes you look retarded,” as my friend J called it with exasperation. I eventually learned not to call my parents at 10 PM during a sleepover and beg to be taken home, when sensory overload from all that was unfamiliar had me in terror. I essentially learned how to recognize what was normal and what was weird, and I banished all things weird from my repertoire. I suppressed my own needs in order to provide what I saw others wanted from me.

This process, most intense in childhood, continued through adolescence and into adulthood; it continues to this day, though for years, of course, it’s been a question of tiny modifications, miniscule tuneups.

I also learned not to trust everyone, not even every adult. I learned to fear being seen as different, because sometimes it upsets people so much they hit you or destroy your things. Gradually, I learned that my right to live independently hung on my ability not to offend, weird out, or otherwise upset people in a position to decide my fate.

From an exterior vantage point–and, to be honest, from my vantage point for most of my life–all this was progress. I fit in. People were happy with me. I met expectations. This made me happy.

But the other direct result of this process is that I lost touch with who I really am. The person I experience as me, deep below my verbal self, below my connection to others, below my sense of time and persona, is inaccessible to me on a daily basis. She is buried under all the accumulated behavior that allows me to function as a familiar blip on others’ radar. I can only reach her when I am completely alone, in complete silence, with enough time stretched out in front of me that I can forget, for the moment, what needs to be done to keep daily life running.

Needless to say, this confluence rarely occurs in my life. Until recently, I didn’t even realize I needed it. The weird otherness of my early childhood had been tamed, banished, erased (I liked to think); the things about me that had upset other people were now gone. There was no hidden me.

Oh, I knew I needed “down time,” and I knew to avoid too many social engagements back to back. I’d learned that full-time work was a recipe for depression. I knew that, much as I wanted and loved them, mothering my children was somehow too much for me. Where other people whistled a cheery tune, I whimpered and folded into a ball, overwhelmed. All these things meant there was something wrong with me; that part of me that upset people was still there. My otherness. My supreme failure to be a regular person. I just tried to keep my meltdowns from imposing on others as much as possible, and to get back in the saddle as quickly as I could.

I now realize that what’s been wrong with me is that I’ve been living an impostor’s life. I don’t mean no part of my life has been real, of course; it’s all been as real as I could make it. As real as it could be, building on an externally imposed foundation. I’ve been really trying my damnedest. My love for my husband and children is real. My interest in my friends, my fascination with mathematics, my love for language are all real. My deep passions for tolerance, for embracing diversity, for honesty, justice, and fairness, are all real. Everything in my life is as real as it can be. I present myself as accurately as I can; it’s just that what I dish up is passed through a “normalcy filter” before it reaches the surface. And there, I strip it of everything weird; I make it cookie-cutter, acceptable, expected, usual. I add in all kinds of things that aren’t important to me. All in the service of making people happy. That’s where it all started, and that’s what continues to drive it today: I see what people want, and I try to give it to them.

But the thing is, the real me doesn’t meet expectations. She is different. If I’m ever going to reclaim her, I’m going to have to let go of my need to be a good girl who always does as she’s told. Not that I’m looking to raise hell and break rules; I’m talking about seeming weird, odd, freaky. Making people uncomfortable by just being the way I am. This idea scares me.

About the Author: Grayson is a woman on the autism spectrum who describes herself as “a brainy, quirky, synaesthetic, forty-something wife and mother of three.” This piece first appeared on her blog, Falling into Place, and is reprinted here by permission.

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The Silliest Things Make You Cry Sometimes

by Devon Alley

When you’re the parent of an autistic child, the silliest things make you cry. Sometimes, these are sad cries, like when A was about three years old, and she was kicked out of a dance class with the instructor talking down her nose at me: “I don’t chase children.” But, sometimes, these are happy cries — like the tears streaming down my face last night as I eavesdropped on A’s telephone conversation with one of her friends at school.

First of all, it’s amazing that A is choosing to collect phone numbers from her peers at school. Secondly, it’s amazing that she decides she wants to call them. I remember trying to encourage her to make phone calls to her friends at school just a few years ago, and how stressful it was to essentially have to coach her through the whole call — to explain to her the need to use proper greetings, that she had to wait to talk until she’d heard a voice on the other end of the phone. My daughter used to get frustrated with voicemail and answering machines, unsure what was going on and what was expected of her. She’d often hang up the phone without saying goodbye, or even without really ending the conversation, and on the rare occasions she would actually talk on the phone, she’d really just quote something to the person on the other end, generally not expecting a response at all.

In other words, telephone conversations were a little challenging for A.

Last night, however, A followed all of the appropriate social rules of phone calls. She used a greeting (albeit a sparse “Hi!” but I’ll take it). She asked to speak to T. She greeted T and asked her “What’s up?” And then, of course, she outlined the purpose of her call, which was solely to discuss a very specific BrainPOP animation that they both loved. I’m not sure what T said as a delay tactic, but she managed to get A interested in talking about other things first. It’s amazing how wonderful and intuitive her new group of friends are; they seem to know exactly how to push A  just a little out of her comfort zone without frustrating her, which I find really impressive. Whatever the conversation, T must’ve sounded a little down-in-the-dumps, because I heard A say:

“Why the long face? I mean, did anything upset you?”

Which is the point in the conversation I started crying.

Like many mothers, I was told when A was first diagnosed with autism that she would have a very difficult time empathizing with others — that, in fact, it might be nearly impossible for her to do so. And, like many mothers, I completely believed it. She didn’t really seem to form any social attachments with me or any other family members the way that other children seemed to do so. She seemed isolated, aloof, and completely unconcerned with everything happening around her. (Which just goes to show how little I knew at the time, since she tells me now that she can remember a morning back then when I was really sick, and she was afraid I was going to die.)

Yet here, nearing the age of 12, my daughter is concerned about her friend’s feelings. Not only that, but she has learned how to express that concern. And while her verbiage still is (and will likely always be) somewhat awkward (i.e. referring to a “long face” when she can’t visibly see the person she’s describing), she is still displaying real empathy here. I am so very proud of how far she’s come.

Which is, of course, not to suggest that there won’t continue to be issues. Throughout the conversation, she continued to badger her friend about the BrainPOP animation: “Okay, can we talk about the BrainPOP lever cartoon NOW?” But these requests were mixed in with a more natural flow of conversation: “Oh, that’s my dog. Yeah. About two weeks ago. He’s a Corgi and Terrier Mix. If my mom holds him for very long, she gets all itchy because she’s a little allergic.” It was really awesome to listen to her respond to questions, share information, and be extremely socially appropriate throughout her conversation with her friend.

And I know it’s silly to cry, even with joy, about these things. But I spent so much time worried that this would be something that would never come easily for A. And, actually, I know it’s something that doesn’t come easily for her now — I know she has to work twice as hard at navigating a simple phone call than another child her age. Still, she’s doing it — she’s making the effort, and she’s succeeding in keeping these friendships thriving. And I am so very impressed, and so very proud of these small moments, and of how far she’s come.

About the Author: Devon Alley is the mother of a child diagnosed with high-functioning autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, From Inside the Puzzle: Raising a Child with Autism, and is reprinted here by permission.

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On Sensory Empathy

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

In an interview on NPR, Temple Grandin talked about a lack of sensory empathy among non-autistic people:

Normal people have an incredible lack of empathy. They have good emotional empathy, but they don’t have much empathy for the autistic kid who is screaming at the baseball game because he can’t stand the sensory overload. Or the autistic kid having a meltdown in the school cafeteria because there’s too much stimulation. I’m frustrated with the inability of normal people to have sensory empathy. They can’t seem to acknowledge these different realities because they’re so far away from their own experiences.

Because of my acute auditory sensitivity, I’ve always had difficulties with ambient sound, especially in the spring and summer, when the “noisy season” begins. Neighbors run buzz-saws. Construction projects get underway. People mow their lawns. Drivers speed down the street blasting loud music with their car windows open. Motorcycles start up at 7:30 in the morning.

It’s painful and exhausting to my system. And yet, most people cannot intuitively put themselves in my shoes and understand why. They cannot take the perspective of my experience. They do not realize that what I need from them is sensory empathy.

An example: One beautiful summer day, my daughter Ashlynne and I decided to go out for some mother-daughter time, and we set off for the bead store. We had chosen to go there because the place is very spacious, and I thought I’d look for some interesting beads for my art projects. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that they play Incredibly Loud Music there. It was so loud that when we walked in, I immediately stopped and said to Ashlynne, “Wait, wait! I need my earplugs! Now!” Fortunately, I keep an extra pair in my bag, but in my agitation, I couldn’t find them. Ashlynne offered to hold the bag open, and I finally located them. My hands were shaking, but I got the earplugs in.

The music was so loud that I could still hear it quite clearly, so I asked Ashlynne to ask the man at the counter to turn it down. He did. A little. I could still hear the music, and clearly, he had no idea of how it was affecting me.

Listening to loud music and talking to someone at the same time is impossible for me. Listening to loud music and and trying to think straight about anything is usually out of the question, and about ten minutes after entering the store, I realized that I’d reached my limit. I just wanted to cry. Why do people have to play such loud music? I thought. Why is that fun? If the place were quiet, I could have spent hours there.

But of course, the man at the counter seemed to be enjoying the music, and no one except my daughter had any idea of how I was experiencing the environment. So I took the beads I had found and went up to the counter to pay for them — at which point the man at the counter said, “Didn’t you mark down how much each set of beads costs?”

Oh no.

I said, “No, I didn’t see a pad and pencil for that,” so he gave me one. And then, I had to go back around this large store looking for these tiny beads, and I thought I was just going to break down and weep. And again, no one except my daughter had any idea about how the environment was affecting me. No one could read my body language, my subtle nonverbal cues, the look in my eyes, or anything else.

My daughter helped me find all the prices, and then we got out of there.

After this experience, I began to think about what the world would be like if people had sensory empathy —  if they could read the body language of autistic people properly, and if they could understand how acutely we experience the world. What if every public building and private business had to make its environment accessible for autistic people, with an understanding of our sensory experience?

Here’s how it might look:

1. No public building or private business would have Incredibly Loud Music, and all TVs would be turned off. After all, who can think straight in all that noise? In a world of sensory empathy, people would use headphones to listen to music in public.

2. Aisles in all buildings would be wide enough so that two people could occupy opposite sides of an aisle without inadvertently touching each other.

3. When in a public building or private business, people would use their inside voices. When outdoors, people would refrain from loud cursing, the uttering of racial and ethnic slurs, and other forms of aggressive verbal behavior.

4. People would not use cell phones within earshot of another person, especially when having private and emotional conversations.

5. Each place of business would post the food smells or other fragrances one might encounter upon entering.

6. If a neighbor wished to use a lawn-mower, chainsaw, or other power tool, he or she would tell others in advance, so that autistic people might not plan to spend the afternoon sitting on our porches, enjoying the peace and quiet.

7. Everyone would understand that it takes our bodies awhile to calm down after unexpectedly loud noises, and they would take care to let us know when they are about to embark on loud construction or demolition projects, so that we might go inside before they begin.

8. Every restaurant would have a quiet zone for dining.

9. Every building would have a separate, quiet waiting room.

10. No autistic person would be derided or harassed for stimming in public.

It would be a peaceful, considerate, and empathetic world. It would be the world of my dreams.

About the Author: Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg is a wife, mother, writer, and artist. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 50. A version of this piece first appeared on her blog, Journeys with Autism.

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The Data Myth

by Brenda Rothman

What’s a diagnosis for children who lack empathy, have an inability to relate to others, aren’t interested in friendships, and don’t experience a full range of emotions? If you answered “autism,” you have bought into the Data Myth.

These days, more people know about autism. Some of us have personal experience, either as parents or as individuals diagnosed with autism. And some people have, at least, heard the word through autism awareness campaigns. We think we know what autism is and we try our best to describe it. But as parents, professionals, and individuals who have experience with autism, the words we use to describe, teach, or tell stories are powerful. And sometimes our words are based on inaccurate paradigms of autism, perpetuating stereotypes that don’t reflect reality.

One subtle and stubborn myth is the idea that a child with autism doesn’t have typical emotions and can’t relate to emotions in others. The child with autism is described as if he were Data, an android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who is unable to feel emotion and has trouble understanding human nature. The characterization of a person with autism as someone who isn’t affectionate or loving, who can’t understand someone else’s pain or suffering, and who must be taught appropriate emotions is part of the Data Myth. The myth has infiltrated medical, professional, and family discussions. It affects how we interact with our children, how we feel about our children, and how we treat them therapeutically. Children with autism are not androids who are less emotional, less affectionate, or less human.  They are real, complete, whole children who happen to have communication challenges.

Doctors are the first people we look to for explanations of autism, but many are to blame for spreading the Data Myth. For example, medical descriptions of autism often include lack of empathy as a symptom.  Sites that spread this incorrect stereotype include WebMD, The University of Michigan’s Psychology Department, Wikipedia, and EverdayHealth. And it is a myth.  Children with autism have empathy. They may behave differently. They may communicate differently. They may need more time to process the event and the emotions. They may even experience emotions too intensely. But they don’t lack empathy. Here’s what happens. Doctors observed a child with autism. The child reacted atypically, such as laughing when someone cries. The doctors jumped to a conclusion, rather than stating the fact.  That’s not science. Doctors don’t have an internal microscope that surveys the brain, heart, or soul and finds a gaping hole where empathy normally resides. What they observed is an atypical reaction and they didn’t investigate further. In fact, it could be an excess of empathy that causes an overwhelmed response, like nervous laughter. The same is true for the so-called symptom of a “lack of interest in sharing enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people.” Doctors can’t determine the child’s inner feelings or “lack of interest.” They may see the child not interacting. The child may need help engaging with other people.  The child may need help communicating with other people. The child may even need help with enjoyment because of anxiety. But it’s not that the child isn’t interested in sharing things with people. It’s the same with “inability to relate to others” and so many other alleged characteristics. Describing children with autism with inaccurate assumptions furthers the idea that they lack basic human emotions. Doctors should know better.

Researchers are no less to blame. Scientific research is required to be unbiased. Researchers have ethical obligations to eliminate prejudicial paradigms from their research, but how do they describe children with autism?  In one study, a researcher wrote, “Faces fail to hold the attention of a child with autism.” Here again, that sentence is a conclusion, not a fact. The researcher does not know if the child is inattentive to the face. It could be the child is paying attention in a different manner, like using peripheral vision. It could be that the child is attentive to the face, but is overwhelmed by visual input. The difference between “faces fail to hold the attention of the child” and “child gazes at faces for less time” is a subtle difference, but it’s an important distinction. By implying that children with autism are not interested in people, the researcher adds what is presumed to be objective science to the Data Myth. We need researchers to state the facts, not reinforce a stereotype.

Programs for children are not immune from the Data Myth. It’s why I balk at programs that call for children to be taught by robots. Do we think that children with autism would learn better from robots, rather than people? Because our children would better relate to a logical, unemotional robot?  Because we adults can’t adjust ourselves to our children’s needs? It’s why I’m vexed by programs that use lab coats, checklists, and skills and drills for children, instead of play. All kids learn through play, even children with autism. In fact, children with autism might need play even more than other kids so they can deal with the anxiety, worries, and upsets they experience. We should ensure that therapies are playful and child-appropriate. And what about programs that suggest that children can’t learn social skills from their parents or siblings, and instead must be taught social skills by therapists? It’s also why I worry when people say that children with autism need to be socialized at school. Socialized? It sounds like they need to learn how to be civilized little humans. And at school? That idea presupposes that groups of kids are the best environment. It assumes that they aren’t already learning about relationships and social problem-solving at home. Programs for our children shouldn’t be satisfied with teaching them rote responses or superficial ways of behaving. Is the underlying assumption the Data Myth?

The Data Myth may even have influenced individuals in the autism community. When an adult with autism describes never having experienced love, that is her experience, but it’s not true of autism or of other people with autism. When a person with autism refers to his computer brain that uses images to understand emotions, that’s his experience. But it’s not necessarily true of autism. Individuals with autism have their own personalities, characteristics, and experiences.

And how does the Data Myth affect parents? If we buy into the myth, even subconsciously, we write off our children’s humanity. It makes us feel a distance that doesn’t have to exist. We may overlook our children’s emotional needs. We might even think they don’t notice us. Or love us. Or we might miss their unique expressions of affection, sadness, or loneliness.

We need to be on guard against the Data Myth and the stereotypes it perpetuates. Children with autism may sometimes react differently, but that doesn’t mean they lack human emotions. We need to think about, write about, and treat children with autism with the understanding that they experience a full range of emotions but have trouble processing and communicating them. We need to understand that they are interested in people and want to interact, but that they have sensory or communication issues that make it difficult. We need to challenge the medical community to rise above these stereotypes. And we need to see our kids as already whole and complete children, not as faulty.

The Data Myth is an flawed paradigm that needs to end.  It’s caused enough problems already.

About the Author: Brenda Rothman, the mother of an autistic son, writes about autism, parenting, and shoes on her blog Mama Be Good http://mamabegood.blogspot.com/. Brenda is also on Twitter @mamabegood, where she enjoys margatweetas, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mamabegood, where she spills coffee creamer.

All images are the exclusive property of Brenda Rothman and Mama Be Good and are protected under the United States and International Copyright laws. The images may not be reproduced, copied, transmitted or manipulated without the written permission of Brenda Rothman at Mama Be Good. © 2009 – 2011 Mama Be Good.

The Data Myth first appeared on Brenda’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.

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On Empathy and Experience

by Kate Goldfield

This is a topic that has been brewing in my mind a lot lately – actually, on and off for the last month. I very much want to get it down on paper, so to speak.

The story starts on the night that I learned that Madeline (my roommate) had gone into the hospital. She is 93, and her ankle was swollen and bleeding. I did not know this all day Friday, until my other roommate came home around 9:30 to tell me.

That night, I was in a bit of shock. I felt so bad for her. I care very much about Madeline and am closer to her than to a lot of other people. I feel a connection to her even though there’s not a lot we have in common on the outside. So, that night, I was feeling very badly for her. A hospital is not a nice place for anyone, but especially when you’re 93. I kept remembering the stories she had told me about one time, years ago, that she had been in the hospital, and how much she had hated it, and especially how bad the food had been. I imagined her in that hospital room, lonely and frustrated and…. well, the main thing I kept thinking was that she was alone.

Maybe that could partly be attributed to my own hospital stay 13 years ago, when the primary thing I felt was loneliness. I just hated being there while everyone else was living their lives. It was not a pleasant feeling. So, accurate or not, I ascribed it to her. And I thought of the food, of course. And I felt a sense of powerlessness, of wanting so badly just to do something to help her, to make her feel better, to make her happy in some small way, knowing there wasn’t anything I could do. I couldn’t help that she was in the hospital, of course. I could write her notes and send her small gifts — and I did — but that wasn’t enough.

Somewhere in that night, as I frantically wrote disjointed thoughts to a friend while trying to process everything, I realized something. This feeling of wanting to help and feeling bad for someone  — a feeling that, it seems, for many people is hard to put into words —  is probably what other people had felt towards me when I was in emotional distress or had problems, and they wanted to help me, but didn’t know how. Or they thought there was nothing they could do. In that instant, I caught a brief glimpse of what I should have been feeling all of those numerous, probably hundreds of times that people had tried to unsuccessfully comfort me.

Why was it unsuccessful? Because, for whatever reason, most people can’t put their feelings into words. And there seems to be an unspoken agreement among NTs that they don’t need to put their feelings into words; their feelings, in certain circumstances, are automatically understood, since there are “typical” and commonly understood feelings for certain situations.

Now, take me. I do not know what the “typical” feelings to have in any given situation are. I have absolutely no clue! I need to hear verbally, in words, in very definite and descriptive and precise words, exactly what someone is feeling. I can’t tell from the person’s face. I can’t guess — or, if I  can, it’s a very rudimentary guess. If I’m lucky, I can make a logical assumption —  but logical assumptions, I have to say, are not very comforting.

I have always needed to hear the words when someone is trying to comfort me, but here’s the thing: Most people don’t have words. And that has proved disastrous to me, time after time. I would be crying, I would be revealing highly emotional things, and I’d look across to where the person was sitting and, as far as I could tell, they weren’t responding at all. They weren’t listening, I thought. They didn’t care, I thought. They didn’t understand, I thought — when, in fact, their nonverbal language was probably saying otherwise.

The feeling of aloneness and isolation that not feeling understood brought on made me feel 100 times worse. In fact, if often made me cross the line to hysterical, which would scare the other person and make the person become even more remote, which would reinforce the cycle, and it’d go on and on — sometimes only until I had exhausted myself in hysterics. I shudder to think about it now. Relationships get ruined this way, over a simple misunderstanding of communication, over not being able to read each other, but thinking you can.

If I apply this new-found knowledge to the present situation, I can get a glimpse into what the other person was feeling. Empathy. Caring. Wanting to make things better, but not knowing how. Powerlessness. But the person didn’t know how to put these into words, and I honestly had no idea the person was feeling it. It might sound thick, but it’s the truth. Autism is in so many ways a disorder you have to live out for an awfully long time before you figure out all the many and myriad ways it affects you and the people in your life.

I have a pang of sympathy and understanding for these people in my life now, when I think about this. Maybe a fleeting feeling of connection. But that’s all — fleeting. This knowledge is still too new. It’s like I’ve gotten a glimpse of it, and that’s great, wonderful, but it will take more than a glimpse, I’m afraid, for me to be able to put it in practice. But I will try. I will try to remember what I felt like about Madeline the next time I’m trying to figure out how someone is feeling about me. I don’t know if it will work, but I will try.

Why is my autism all about having to make logical connections in the place where, in others, emotional connections exist? I don’t know, and I’d really like to. But it’s like building the brain from the ground up, and if I do not have particular experiences to rely on to understand what a particular emotion feels like, then I might be able to understand it logically, might in time learn that this is what people are “supposed” to feel, but I may never really feel it, in myself or others. So many connections need to be made  — and unfortunately, the experiences, friendships, and social experiences I need to make them are so often missing, not through anyone’s fault, but just because my autistic traits make me far more unlikely to make these kind of relationships in the first place.

You may think I am saying that autistics don’t feel emotions towards others. I am NOT saying this. The myth that autistics are not capable of empathy is pure bunk. But I am beginning to think that, for me, it might have to be learned. I think that all emotions autistic people feel towards others are based on emotions they have felt themselves; and if they have not felt those emotions themselves, because they are missing the social experiences to have created them or are just developmentally behind, they won’t feel them.

So this makes it critically important that people with ASD be exposed to a wide range of experiences. But shoving them into experiences unprepared isn’t going to do much good; if a person is scared and afraid, as many ASD people are about new experiences, he or she will shut
down and not be able to connect with anyone or anything. So the key is to figure out a way to expose the person to new things while in his or her comfort zone, while the person is relaxed enough for his or her brain to be able to make the new connections. The autistic has to feel it’s safe to care about this person, has to feel “I like this person and she is not a threat,” and several months later, perhaps the autistic person will realize, “Hey, I actually feel connected to this person!” Fear and anxiety will prevent these connections from happening.

I have heard many ASD people say they have trouble connecting with and feeling close to others. I feel that if you protect yourself too much and never get close to anyone — even if you don’t realize you’re protecting yourself — you never feel what it is like to feel close to someone, and so therefore, you can’t feel what it is like for them to be close to you. It is not ASD people’s fault that they have trouble making friends, but it does seem to be a vicious cycle in many ways. You can’t just turn defense mechanisms off when someone asks; I think the situation has to be right for them to fall away.

Most people with ASD are quite smart in other ways. They find ways around their blind spots. The therapist who diagnosed me told me something like, “Instead of understanding things intuitively, you make these logical connections in your brain. But you make them so fast that it’s sometimes hard for people to see that you had trouble understanding the concept in the first place.”

Anyway, more thoughts about my life. These do not apply to all people with autism; they are just my life and experiences as I see them.

About the Author: Kate Goldfield is a young woman with Asperger’s Syndrome. A version of this post first appeared on her blog, Aspie from Maine, and is reprinted here by permission.

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Autism and Empathy: The Car Accident

by Kitty Kat

One of the things I constantly hear is that people with autism cannot feel empathy. Let’s get this straight: This is crap. Just because they show emotions differently does not mean they do not have them.

Case in point: My youngest, Porkchop, was 1200 miles away visiting his dad when there was a car accident. Roger did not know the details —  just that the car had rolled, that his brother was fine and with his grandparents, and that we would be picking him up that Saturday.

For the next week, every time we went to the store, Roger wanted to buy his brother presents because he was in an accident and didn’t get hurt. This was his way of showing he cared. So, the whole theory that people with autism don’t care is junk.  Some just show it differently.

Roger didn’t know how to show it, so he wanted to buy him stuff. Finally, he settled on a Hot Wheels car, but then he was concerned that the car might remind his brother of the accident. After what felt like ages of our talking to him and telling him that the car was fine, he finally decided to get it for his brother and could not wait to give it to him.

We were not in the hotel for more than a minute, and he was getting the car out of the suitcase and giving it to him.

About the Author: Kitty Kat and her husband have four children, including her son Roger, who has autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, No Guile: Life and Other Stories from Autism, and is reprinted here by permission.

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On Empathy

by Suz

One of the things about the Batsman’s diagnosis that I have struggled with at a deeply personal level is the notion that those with autism lack empathy. I remain unable to accept or get my head around our beautiful boy perhaps lacking the capacity to walk in the shoes of others, to share in experiences and feelings, to be there, as he grows, for someone else who might need support. How are relationships formed, in the face of this real or perceived lack? Will he be isolated socially if he doesn’t “get” other people? Looking into the future through this prism is terrifying.

I talk a lot with both of the boys. With the Batsman, in particular, I talk a lot about others: “What happened to X?” “He feels sad/angry/happy.” “We could give her a toy to help her feel better.” On and on it goes. The Batsman participates in the conversation happily enough, but you can’t always be sure that he gets what it all means.

I read this article today. It made me feel a whole world better about the empathy issue.

A groundbreaking study suggests people with autism-spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s do not lack empathy – rather, they feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope.

This fits with how the Batsman reacts in so many situations in his daily experience. When the Bowler cries (frequently, he is almost two after all!), the Batsman often becomes distressed — not just because of the noise but clearly because someone else is upset. Tears well in his eyes, and he just doesn’t know where to put himself, what to do; the overwhelm he feels is evident. Equally, if I am stressed or anxious or upset, much as I may try to hide that from the boys, the Batsman seems to have a sixth sense (empathy?) and will find a spot where he can curl up next to me, comfort and closeness the seeming goal. There are times he just instinctively seems to get it, to get how someone else is feeling.

And this week he showed us.

The scene
The end of a kinder session, children and parents streaming out of the playground and out the front gate. It’s noisy and chaotic, just the kind of scenario the Batsman finds difficult.

The happening
A little girl in the Batsman’s kinder group skips just ahead of us and then trips, tumbling to the ground.

What he did
The Batsman walks a couple of steps to where the little girl is on the ground. He crouches down beside her.

What he said
“Are you okay, Annie?”

My beautiful, beautiful boy. I believe you will have empathy, if you don’t already. I know it’s hard for you sometimes to deal with all the sensory information our crazy world throws at you. I will help you, Daddy will help you, and your beloved brother will help you.

We’ll get there. Together.

About the Author: Suz is the mother of two boys, one of whom has mild autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, The I Love You Song, and is reprinted here by permission.

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