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.