The Hurt Vehicle: One Boy’s Empathy

by Autism and Oughtisms

My five year-old son is an autism stereotype. He flaps his hands, walks on tip-toes, hums, lines up cars… The list goes on. And when he sees a car crash – in a cartoon or in a news piece – he wants to know if the vehicle is okay and whether it can be fixed.

I can imagine – and I know – that many would see this as evidence of a lack of empathy. I know that many would believe that he either hasn’t thought of or doesn’t care about the occupants of the crashed vehicles. I don’t see that at all. In fact, when it comes to the emotional distress of others, my son is the most hyper-sensitive person I have ever interacted with.

Considering what he can see, his concern for the vehicle’s welfare is an obvious reaction. He can see bent metal, burnt tires, and smashed glass. He cannot see – and I would not want him to see – the bleeding bodies or mangled limbs. He’s never been in a car crash, either. His experiential and observational context is as someone external to the event, who has no particular reason to expect the people who might have been in the vehicle to be hurt. For all he knows, there was no one in the car, and that’s why it lost control, or no one was hurt. To expand from his context to say he doesn’t care whether anyone was in the car, or whether anyone was hurt, seems unfounded to me.

Indeed, his concern for the state of the vehicle is often quite intense and heart-felt. He wants to know if it is okay and if it will be okay. Concern for a vehicle does not evidence lack of concern for people. In fact, it may be taken as evidence of hyper-concern for things the rest of us wouldn’t be bothered by – extended, in this case, to an inanimate object.

Earlier in his years, my son did struggle to read and understand emotion. I had to teach it to him, to help him pay attention to and make sense of it. He was able to learn it, and what an appropriate response to it might be. Would he have figured out emotion without my help? I don’t know. That’s like asking me whether he would have figured out how to talk in a sentence without speech therapy. Considering that his development has been different and delayed, rather than nonexistent, he quite possibly would have. I have no doubt that the speech would have taken longer to come in. In the same way, I strongly suspect that he would have learnt to recognise and respond to emotions, but my teaching sped up the process. Perhaps too much.

He has gone from seemingly indifferent to others’ emotions, to distantly fascinated by others’ emotions, to hyper-sensitive to others’ emotions. He reads the slightest narrowing of my eyes or the smallest movement of a cheek muscle. He is so tuned in to my facial expressions – and to my body language, too – that he is like a multiplication reverse-mirror. If I show a tiny piece of anger, he shows immense fear (I’m really not that scary); if I show a glimmer of happiness, his entire face lights up, his body relaxes, and he slips into play mode; if I show weariness, he’ll say I need a sleep. And if I try to fool him – show an emotion that doesn’t match my mood, for whatever reason – he always seems to pick up on it.

Being around someone so highly tuned into me is exhausting from a parenting perspective, since sometimes you need your child to think you’re angry when you’re not, or happy when you’re sad. I’ve had to really up my acting; I have to actually make myself feel the emotion I’m trying to convey, because only then will he fully accept it. It’s all the more exhausting because his reactions to my moods are so intense, often laced with anxiety or repetitive, fixated behaviour, and it can be hard to help him move on. His emotional awareness and sensitivity are a problem. For the sake of his own happiness, we need to teach him – and he needs to learn – how to regulate his reactions so that they are proportionate to what he is seeing; his extreme reactions and hyper-awareness are not serving him well right now.

It’s not just me who gets these reactions from him either (though I probably see the worst of it). He also responds strongly to his little brother and to his head teacher. He cares about his little brother being sleepy or sad or hungry, and he cares about what his head teacher thinks of him. He modifies his behaviour and words to clearly reflect those concerns.

I feel, sometimes, that maybe the closed-off world he once seemed to be in was protecting him from this potential overload — and that his immersion into a more interactive and multi-contextual world of experience has sent him into overdrive. I know we did the right thing with him, though; he is much happier now, and his skills and confidence have sky-rocketed with his growing experiences and interactions. But this means that I must help him to manage the consequences of that exposure. I need to help him to make sense of and manage this world, which in turn doesn’t seem to understand his reactions and perceptions.

My son, at least, is making the effort to learn. Most people do not make the corresponding effort to learn about and understand him. I am forcing them to, however; the ignorance and indifference of others are unacceptable if my son is to flourish in the world.

I don’t know the answers to every challenge and question my son encounters. It has been a long hard road for us, and every day, I learn more about him and about autism, but we’re getting there slowly and together: me teaching him, him teaching me.

So yes, my son cares about the hurt vehicle, but not because he doesn’t care about or is unaware of hurt people. His concern for vehicles might be the butt of people’s jokes about autism, but no one would laugh in the face of his intense and very real reactions when he sees other people in distress. He’s a boy who also notices and wonders about hurt animals and plants. A boy who sees and feels so much that it hurts me as his mother to see his struggle to cope with it all. His empathy is astounding.

About the Author: Autism and Oughtisms is the mother of two sons, a five-year-old and a one-year-old. Her elder son has classic autism. On her blog,  Autism & Oughtisms, she talks about her experiences parenting an autistic child, and discusses other autism issues and viewpoints. The Hurt Vehicle: One Boy’s Empathy was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.

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8 thoughts on “The Hurt Vehicle: One Boy’s Empathy

  1. […] guest post, entitled “The Hurt Vehicle: One Boy’s Empathy,” went live today at the blog “Autism and Empathy.” Please do head over and check […]

  2. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    I never did understand Ben’s love of machinery, it seemed, over people. It hurt. But I was looking at it selfishly. I wanted him to act the way I wanted.

    I had an engineer friend who had 4 brothers, ALL of whom had a grandchild with a diagnosis of autism. Think of it: without autism we would probably still be cavemen shooting the shit, bragging about the size of our prey, …Maybe that which makes men engineers and inventors and bridge builders and explorers and all manner of independent creators, all manner of progressive artists, is also that which give meaning to metal objects. We can’t all be salesmen.

    I hope I’ve made a bit of sense.

    • Yes, you make perfect sense. And I think that’s a lovely and important thought; the different things which attract our care and attention in this world, can lead to amazing creations that make all of our lives better.

  3. Jon Brock says:

    Thanks A&O. Another brilliant insightful post.

    The thing that kept occurring to me was Thomas the Tank Engine. I haven’t yet heard a convincing explanation for the near universal Thomas obsession in autistic boys but I think this comes close. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    • Hi Jon,

      Thanks for those kind words.

      As for Thomas, the Thomas world and characters played a huge role in my son’s development. I used a Thomas emotion games to help teach him to recognise and label emotions. His passion for Thomas was the only motivator I could find to finally get him toilet trained at four and a half years old. And his interest in Thomas play toys gave him an activity – other than just lining up cars – that he could enjoy along side his peers. It was a way to share in his world. There are many other ways that Thomas helped us too.

      As to how Thomas and the common interest in Thomas relates to my post, I hadn’t honestly already made the connection you did. I’d read various pieces about why Thomas appeals so much to our kids; that there’s no body language to confuse the emotion message, that the facial expressions wouldn’t constantly change because of the limitations of the models, that the use of a single voice narrator simplified accessing what the characters are doing and why, etc. Also that trains and train tracks hold an appeal in the predictable movement of a wheel along pre-known lines; a sort of orderliness that overcomes various barriers to play. I think you’re right that there’s something more there too; that the concern for vehicles that my son (for example) shows, might also be part of the whole Thomas picture, but I haven’t pieced that bit in yet.

      An interesting thought, thanks for raising it.

  4. Frederico says:

    An ‘appropriate response’ to others misfortune, is often an ‘instinctual’ universally accepted reaction to others pain, that becomes a cultural norm to replicate around others.

    It is usually parroted off as etiquette dictates, and its speaker knows that his social status within the pack calls for an expression of solidarity with the sufferer/s. Are you with us??? While it is sometimes expressed in a sycophantic 2 faced manner by the socially adept, the socially awkward often make the mistake of not bonding emotionally with their pack.

    As a male, I was expected to hate the groups or people that my friends were hateful of…. When I had no empathy for their hate list, I was then added too.

    Empathy is a double sided sword, sometimes involving taking sides. At least we autists dont unreasonably hate those groups the mainstream are told to hate and fear……

  5. Jill says:

    i can identify with this with my son and wish you continued success in teaching your son what is important in the world, like you i face the ignorance of others and the lack of understanding around autism and aspergers on a daily basis and it is so encouraging to hear of others who seek to educate those you meet to increase understanding. thank you for sharing this beautiful piece of writing – your son is of the new age world like mine and the rest of the world just has not caught up yet. x

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