Social Success, Empathy, Sympathy, and Autism

by C.S. Wyatt

I’ve been swamped for the last week, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been pondering “big ideas” while working. One of the topics I can’t stop pondering is why so much value is placed on “empathy” and “social skills” when the best of the best at imitating these are often the worst of the worst people.

You don’t believe me? There are numerous studies indicating leaders (think Presidents and the list is long) have narcissistic tendencies, as well as a dash of paranoia. Nationally elected politicians also score high on communications measures of social lying. I located more than 100 unique studies indicating that the ability to manipulate people, well-intentioned or not, corresponds to personal popularity. One study of young children tested their ability to lie and correlated “social lying skills” with popularity.

Empathy is “the ability to understand the feelings and desires or needs of others.”

When tested, narcissists score high on empathy. So, curiously enough, do some sociopaths. In fact, there are sociopaths able to score near-perfect on some empathy instruments — which raises red-flags.

Consider what a narcissist or sociopath wants: control and attention. With a great ability to understand and even anticipate what people want to hear, the master manipulator gains trust and the following he or she wants. Charismatic leaders certainly do this by knowing what a person wants to hear and tailoring words, vocal tone, and even movements to the situation. A narcissist can seem like your best friend, instantly, because he or she knows that later you will be useful.

Yet, we keep claiming that the big problem with high-functioning autism, PDD-NOS, and Asperger’s Syndrome is the social impairment. In other words, we don’t make friends easily. Social impairment is part of the diagnostic criteria.

Sympathy is more important than empathy, at least based on most definitions. And most autistic students and adults I’ve met have a surplus of sympathy. In fact, many seem to suffer from overwhelming sensitivity and sympathy for the situations of others. Personally, I am extremely sensitive to the suffering of animals and children. Can I empathize? Not always, but I feel horrible when I see anyone or anything suffering.

The social skill that I lack is the ability to communicate that sympathy effectively. At least in some instances.

Some of the research I find interesting:

UMass Researcher Finds Link Between Lying And Popularity.
University Of Massachusetts At Amherst (1999, December 14).

“We found that convincing lying is actually associated with good social skills. It takes social skills to be able to control your words as well as what you say non-verbally,” said Feldman.

Why are Narcissists (Initially) so Popular?
Breaking down the popularity of the narcissist
Published on January 22, 2010 by Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman in Beautiful Minds

Paulhus (1998) found that after the first meeting, narcissists were rated as more agreeable, conscientious, open, competence, entertaining, and well adjusted by the other members of the group. What a contrast to what the group members thought of the very same narcissistic individuals on the seventh day!

Narcissism and emergent leadership in military cadets
Sampo V. Paunonen, et al
The Leadership Quarterly
Volume 17, Issue 5, October 2006, Pages 475-486

The best rated leaders exemplified the bright side of narcissism while suppressing the dark side — emergent leaders were measured to be high in egotism and self-esteem but low in manipulativeness and impression management.

I’m not claiming empathy isn’t important. I’m suggesting we should focus on sympathy and helping people learn to communicate sympathy effectively.

About the Author: C.S. Wyatt is a freelance writer and editor, and a professor of English and Communication Studies at a private university. He holds a doctorate in Rhetoric, Scientific and Technical Communication from the University of Minnesota, and specializes in the fields of new media, online education, and special needs students. He was diagnosed with high-functioning autism as an adult. Social Success, Empathy, Sympathy, and Autism first appeared on his blog, The Autistic Me, and is reprinted here by permission.



I Don’t Give A Straw about Your Autism Stereotypes

by Shannon Des Roches Rosa

If I had my own reality show, I’d  do a Mythbusters spin-off called Exploding Stereotypes, in which my team and I would travel the world, methodically exploring stereotype histories and flaws. I’d want to start with autism, of course. Should I begin with the “special gifts” savant stereotype, or with the “no empathy” stereotype? How about the latter?

Because people with autism or Asperger’s can have difficulty interpreting body language cues, they are stereotyped as unable to feel empathy. So untrue! My son is not much for conversation, but he can be highly sensitive to my body language, snuggling with me when I’m physically slumped and low, dancing with me when I’m happy. Ours is a genuine emotional connection.

Body language isn’t required to feel empathy, anyhow. How else to explain the actions of the gracious and thoughtful Lindsey Nebeker, who gathered and sent Leo his latest supply of green Sbux straws,  even though she was in the middle of an interstate move? L.U.S.T., the League of Unrepentant Straw Thieves, is honored to have Lindsey join our ranks. And I am grateful to her for living a stereotype-exploding life.

So many straws! Leo says Thank You, Lindsey!

About the Author: Shannon Des Roches Rosa is a mom to three children; her son Leo is autistic. She has been writing about autism and parenting since 2003, and is a co-editor of  The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, Squidalicious, and is reprinted here by permission.


Autistic people: insensitive to social reputation, sure, but what about empathy?

by Emily Willingham

You may have witnessed the observer effect in action if you’ve ever attended a charity auction. People are watching as bidders compete, either on paper in a silent auction or loudly in a loud auction. The audience observes. The bidders compete. The bids climb, all in the name of charity. But if these folks were sitting alone in their living rooms, pondering how much to donate to the worthy organization, would they be considering an amount as high?

Probably not. Social pressures for donating can be powerful. Your name is there. People are watching. You care about that because you don’t want to look bad. You care because you don’t want to look stingy or, heaven forfend, poor. You care because you want people to think you care, possibly that you care more than you really do.

Unless you’re autistic, according to a recent study. Authors collected 10 people they refer to as “high-functioning” autistic and 11 people considered to be “neurotypical” (NT) and put them head to head in a donation situation in which the recipient was the ever-worthy UNICEF. The authors had participants calculate their level of donation based on how much the participant would lose relative to how much the charity would gain. The participants made their decisions alone and then made decisions with an observer in the room.

With an observer in the room, the NT participants elected to donate significantly more than they did when they were alone. But donations from autistic participants did not change significantly when the observer was present. In fact, when another person was in the room, autistic participants elected to slightly but insignificantly decrease how much they donated to UNICEF.

The researchers ruled out social ignorance about the presence of another person by having all participants complete a continuous performance task with and without another human in the room. Both groups performed better on the task when someone else was observing, indicating that yes, autistic people were certainly aware of the other’s presence.

The title of the paper, “Insensitivity to social reputation in autism” (sorry, not open access), speaks the authors’ conclusions. They determined that autistic people perceive social reputation to be irrelevant and are immune to social pressures related to “best behaviors” when other people are present. Meanwhile, non-autistic people do seem to care about how others view their socially positive behaviors and want to put their best foot–or donations–forward if others are watching.

I find these conclusions fascinating on many levels. As a social species, we keep each other in line, performing for the good of the community, by keeping an eye on each other, Big Brother Primate style. The mere presence of another member of our species helps to ensure conforming and socially positive behaviors (usually). Of course, if members of our species decide en masse to engage in negative behaviors, that also seems to give the go-ahead for joining in, dropping individuality and having a riotous free-for-all. After all, everyone’s doing it, right?

But autistic people–at least the ones in this study–are the nonconformists. They honestly donate what they think is appropriate to donate whether someone is watching or not. They were aware of the other person–even driven to perform better on a task when someone was present–but didn’t feel the social pressure to show off their socially positive behaviors by enhancing their generosity for the benefit of the audience.

I was on board with how the authors described their findings and how they set up the study. The group was small, but the design seemed clean, including a questionnaire to ascertain whether the groups differed in their perceptions of the worthiness of UNICEF (they did not) or in their perceptions of the importance of donating (they did not). But then, I waded into the discussion of the paper and found myself face to face with the following question and statement:

Might people with ASD be immune to observer effects simply because they have less empathy for others (less intrinsic motivation to help others)?…It has been well established that ASD features reduced empathy…

Observations like these always make me wonder if investigators have ever lived with anyone with autism, ever spent enough time with them, day in and day out. The question of empathy and autism is extremely controversial to autistic people, who find it offensive that people say, offhandedly, that they lack empathy. Almost all of the work suggesting that autistic people lack empathy arises from the research of Simon Baron-Cohen (SBC) (yes, Sacha is a distant cousin). In fact, studies that aren’t from the SBC research group typically rely, as the current study did, on the Simon Baron-Cohen Empathy Quotient value to determine whether or not an autistic person exhibits empathy. In other words, the only work reporting that autistic people lack empathy arises from a value for a scale developed by someone who’s determined that autistic people lack empathy.

SBC has taken the time to engage on this subject with the autism community, but not to their satisfaction. I think he’s wrong in the parameters he builds around empathy and his conclusion that autistic people lack it. My experience, and one that many others in the autism community voice, is that autistic people may lack the detection skills to read a face or body language and determine feelings and attitudes from them, but once they’re aware of someone’s feelings–happiness, anguish, anxiety, hope, fear–they feel them too much. Far more than the average “NT” person.

Thus, to see repeated again, in the current paper, that it is “well established that ASD features reduced empathy” sets me to headdesking so hard I may have suffered a subdural hematoma. And not only because I think researchers are wrong in their tautogically based insistence that autistic people lack empathy. It’s also because a certain irony appears to have escaped them.

The irony is in asserting that autistic people lack empathy when–and stay with me here–the “NT” people in this study didn’t rely on their own feelings for the “other” to determine their donations. Instead, they relied on whether or not someone was watching them. Their level of donation didn’t come from how strongly they felt or sympathized with the “other” (in this case, UNICEF). Nope. Social pressure, the knowledge of being watched and judged, the desire for presenting as personally generous–those are the emotions that drove their level of donation. Whose empathy is the less self-involved here?

This “no empathy in autism” meme requires more critical evaluation. Is empathy specifically the power to detect via typical social cues how the “other” feels? Or is it being able to feel strongly on their behalf once you know what their feelings are? Could it be that autistic people are too little assailed by personal social attention to themselves–such as someone watching them engage in social behavior–to care whether or not that person is judging them, but still perfectly capable of engaging in shared feelings on behalf of and in support of another human being?

Photo credit: Silent auction boosts charity donation. Northwest Air Ambulance, via Flickr.
Reference: Izuma et al. PNAS. Insensitivity to social reputation in autism. 2011. doi:10.1073/pnas.1107038108

About the Author: Emily Willingham is a biologist, writer, editor, and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology. She is the mother of three boys; her eldest has Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on The Biology Files and is reprinted here by permission.


The Case of the Impartial Autistic

by Emily

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week discovered some interesting findings about how people with high-functioning autism make decisions, but it says as much about the often problematic ways we interpret such findings as it does about autism.

Izuma and colleagues wanted to know how autistic people’s decision making would be affected by being observed.  They tested this by:

asking people to make real money donations to UNICEF under two conditions: alone in a room or while being watched by a researcher.

This is a standard task for studying decision making in neurotypical people.  Researchers typically find that people donate more when someone else observes them, presumably in order to look like a good person.  Izuma’s team wanted to know whether people with autism would show the same effect.

“What we found in control participants – people without autism – basically replicated prior work. People donated more when they were being watched by another person, presumably to improve their social reputation,” explains Keise Izuma, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and first author on the study. “By contrast, participants with autism gave the same amount of money regardless of whether they were being watched or not. The effect was extremely clear.”

To make sure that autistic participants weren’t simply ignoring the fact that there was another person, they used a control task that didn’t involve moral reasoning, or any sort of decision-making at all.  Both the autistic and the control participants had to solve math problems, with or without an observer present.  This time autistic participants showed the same reaction to an observer as controls: both did better on the math problems when watched.

“This check was important,” says Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology at Caltech and the principal investigator on the paper, “because it showed us that in people with autism, the presence of another person is indeed registered, and can have general arousal effects.”

The research team argues that being observed does not influence autistic people’s decision making because they do not consider what others think of them at all.  Says Adolphs:

“what is missing is the specific step of thinking about what another person thinks about us. This is something most of us do all the time – sometimes obsessively so – but seems to be completely lacking in individuals with autism.”

This may be an intuitively plausible explanation, but if we look at the study a little more closely, we can find other possible explanations that these researchers do not seem to have considered.

First of all, note the strangeness of the decision making task–I’m not sure why it was even chosen in the first place.  While Izumi’s team talks about this task as if it were a generic decision-making task like any other, moral decision-making is its own domain that involves its own complex set of concepts.  Furthermore, as one blogger has already pointed out, it is the autistic participants who make the normatively correct response, from a moral perspective.  We generally view giving to help someone else, or to act morally for its own sake, as better than giving to make oneself look good, and our holy figures, such as Jesus Christ, tend to exemplify impartiality.  It seems odd, then, to take a deficit perspective on the autistic participants’ choices.

Some other possibilities:

  • What if autistic participants care what other people think of them, but also have a moral code dictating impartial behavior, and it is the latter that determines their moral decision-making?

In this case, one should find that in a decision-making situation without moral content–say, an economic one–that autistic participants show the same pattern as controls.

One could also give them descriptions of hypothetical moral decisions, ask them what the correct decision would be, and then ask them to explain why they chose this answer.  If autistic participants rely on a moral code, this should be reflected in responses like “it’s just the right thing to do” or “because we should follow x principle.”  Alternatively, one could use a multiple choice approach, where the answers are code-based, utilitarian (“because this decision has a good effect”), or social status-based.

  • If anything, the fact that an autistic person often gets negative reactions from people could lead them to be more concerned with others’ reactions rather than less.  That does not necessarily mean they can understand these reactions.  What if autistic participants care what other people think of them, but because of their difficulty reading other people and predicting how they will react, it does not influence their behavior in a systematic way?  In other words, it functions as a source of anxiety about an amorphous threat rather than as a guiding force towards appropriate behavior?

In this case, control tasks would need to be designed to isolate caring about others’ reactions (maybe using some sort of autonomic measure of reactivity or approach/avoidance) from understanding such reactions.

The study is currently behind a paywall, so I’m missing a lot of information that would help in interpreting the results.  For example, how generous are autistic participants, relative to controls?  If they follow a moral code, they would make high but unchanging donations; otherwise, they might make typical or low donations.  Unusually low donations might indicate a lack of focus on others’ needs.

I also don’t know about relevant personality or motivational factors in either autistic or control participants.  I’m not very familiar with personality research, but people do differ in how much they seek others’ approval.  If there are measures of this, it might be possible to tell more directly whether autistic people really do seek others’ approval less.

Ultimately, what troubles me is that these researchers have taken up a theory of mind based deficit model so reflexively that they do not seem to consider other possible explanations for their results, or address the fact that the autistic participants actually make the more moral decisions.  This is a common trend in autism research that I think would be less so if researchers interacted more with the autism community.  Most professors oversee and write up their research, but do not actually interact with their participants.  In such a situation, it becomes all too easy to see autistic people as a collection of deficiencies rather than as human beings with strengths as well as weaknesses.

About the Author: Emily is a student and cognitive neuroscientist in training with an interest in the mind, the brain, developmental disorders, and the implications of neuroscience for education. This piece first appeared on her blog, Mosaic of Minds, and is reprinted here by permission.


Asperger’s and Emotions

by AspieSide

Listed in the criteria for Asperger’s in the DSM-IV is “lack of social or emotional reciprocity,”  although I usually see it written as lack of empathy. This criterion was the one that I struggled with the most in regards to my son. I just didn’t see it. If anything, I have seen an oversensitivity to the emotions of others.

What I have observed in my son is that he gets upset when others are upset. If he has ever found me crying, he always sits next to me and rubs my back.  Never mind that half the time I was crying because he just had a meltdown that I couldn’t deal with. The times that it was related to a meltdown he would always apologize and ask for a hug. He has always been a very sweet child.

Death is something that has always upset him quite profoundly. He was probably 9, and I took him with me to a Good Friday service at our church. He had wanted to go because he had heard they turn the lights off for this service. He had been in Christian school since kindergarten, so he was quite familiar with the Bible story. At the end is when they turn off the lights and discuss Jesus’ death. He started to melt. At first, I thought it was from the lights being off, since he has sensory issues. But instead, he started to sob that Jesus had died. I was so surprised that it would upset him so profoundly since he clearly knew how it would end.

So when people started to talk about how he may have Asperger’s, I kept getting hung up when they would say how people with Asperger’s lack empathy. I just didn’t see it. I do understand (well maybe that word isn’t the exact right word) that they lack theory of mind. I have to explain to him how it could affect someone negatively when he does certain things. He doesn’t always understand how he is perceived. When he used to (please God keep it used to) have major meltdowns in class, he would say he couldn’t leave before the meltdown because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. We had to keep explaining the meltdowns were drawing way more attention than walking out when he started to feel upset.

I found a couple of articles about the concept of empathy with Asperger’s and thought I would share:

What I have noticed he struggles with is understanding the non-verbal communications related to emotion. We reviewed the facial expressions in emotions, and he was supposed to identify his feelings every day for a while to help get the hang of it. I found this nifty magnet in Vegas.

The little guy on the magnet rarely moved from bored.  He uses “bored” to describe a lot of emotions, I have noticed. In particular, he says he is bored when he is struggling with school. Maybe he has heard other kids use this word. The describing of emotions is something I think we need to work on.  Thanks to I now know that the word for not being able to put emotions into words is Alexithymia.  Here is a link about it:

From the interactions with my son, I think that does more accurately describe what he is experiencing. He knows what facial expressions mean. He may not always catch onto subtle clues, but overall, he notices when I am angry or sad. He may not always smile when he is happy, but he does know how to give me sad eyes when he wants something. However, he does struggle to put his feelings into words.  Whether or not he truly knows what his feelings are is so difficult for me to know.

I think he knows angry or sad, but does he know the difference between frustrated and angry? I don’t think he did a few years ago, but I think he is learning it. I think (and just my thoughts) that is why a few years ago, when he wasn’t able to do something on a video game, he would immediately melt and become very upset. I think the distinction between the two is difficult for NTs as well, but it is an important distinction. As I have tried to explain to him, frustration is an okay thing and just means he has to work harder to get through what he is trying to do. He seems to be getting better at working through whatever is bothering him when he starts to feel frustrated, even if he still doesn’t use the words “I am frustrated.”

I have also told him that anger is okay too, but that it is not okay to smash things. I think he has previously gotten upset with himself when he has felt these emotions, and that just frustrates him or angers him more. It has really been a process to teach him emotions are an okay thing.

I would really love to hear from someone with Asperger’s about how they feel these emotions.

About the Author: AspieSide is the mother of a 14-year-old son with Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. This piece first appeared on her blog, The Aspie Side of Life, and is reprinted here by permission.


ASDs and Empathy

by Lisa

Image from Google

A few months back, I followed a link on Facebook to the post The Data Myth, and I became extremely overwhelmed when reading the following:

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 post reminded me of some thoughts I wrote last year. So I thought I’d share and update with more recent thoughts.

The Blue Peter Cambodia Appeal

When I was about 10 years old, the children’s TV show Blue Peter had an appeal to raise money for children in Cambodia. They showed awful footage that made me feel very lucky to have food and a home. It devastated me to see such under-nourished children with flies circling their faces and no energy to flick them away. This footage I still remember to this day, and if I focus on it, I still cry.

My mom, in her wisdom, decided to use my very visual imagination to get me to part with some of my many toys. She came into my bedroom with black bin bags and said something like, “You have far too many toys in this room. Everything needs to be sorted and tidied up. There are a lot of starving children in this world. You’ve seen it on Blue Peter. Get rid of some of these toys, and I will take them to the charity shop, and you will help to save a little child’s life.”

I gave away everything.

I couldn’t bear the thought of these little kids having no food. The visuals from Blue Peter were far too much for me.

I only kept two toys: my Tiny Tears Doll and my Teddy Boo-Boo. I still have both of them.

Now, I have a theory about this lack of empathy thing.

I know that, over the years, I have had to shut down to my feelings because they are so intense. I can get so overwhelmed by emotion that I can barely function. I know that when I love a person, they become as important as myself. My children are more important than I am, and I would die for them.

Because I have visual reruns of things that either hurt me or confuse me, I end up rehearsing and chatting and analysing. It can be quite tiring to have so many conversations going around in my head. I have managed to stay in touch with my feelings and to show empathy by being careful what I feed my brain with, and by taking care not to overload myself. I know now what will replay in my constant thought loops and what things to avoid. I can also praise up the less noisy loops and help myself to do the things that are hard to do.

I think that what appears to be a lack of empathy is just a shutdown mechanism of self-protection because the emotion is so intense. This intensity of feeling will overload the system and cause sensory difficulties and, eventually, complete shutdown.

I know that when I gave my toys away, it was because I cared deeply for children I would never meet, and I was willing to go without my toys so they could live. I don’t believe that I lack empathy and I don’t believe other Aspies do either.

About the Author: Lisa is a woman with Asperger’s and the mother of two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. This piece first appeared on her blog, Alienhippy’s Blog, and is reprinted here by permission.


My Autistic Brothers Taught Me Empathy

by Tsara Shelton

About five years ago, I was throwing my hands in the air and hollering at my baby brother for ruining another of my calendars. My baby brother was 20 years old at the time, and I was tired of constantly having to replace the calendars in our home because he hated where the number five landed. Being the mother of four boys with busy schedules, I was trying to keep my life organized (if you know me, that’s quite funny!) and Rye’s obsession with where the five landed on calendars was making this quite difficult.

As I complained for the umpteenth time (probably more than that, I’m not exactly sure how many umpteen is), my brother apologized and told me that it hurt him to see the five landing on the calendar neither more to the left nor to the right, but rather in the middle of the surrounding numbers. It was then that I had an epiphany.

For the first time, and for a brief moment, I understood what it must be like to live in a world surrounded by people who understood one another’s problems, but never yours. I realized that for Rye, the physical pain he felt when looking at a calendar or seeing a rounded car was no less real than the anxiety I feel when looking at my bank statement and seeing a minus sign in front of my two hundred dollars. But for my pain, there are others who understand — friends and family members who get it and have been there. For my brother, there was no one who understood. No one he could talk to who would get it. For the first time, I felt true empathy for my brother — not pity or annoyance or a desire to help him change, but actual empathy for his pain.

I grew up the eldest of eight children, with four brothers on the autism spectrum. Of my four brothers, Rye and Dar are the most classically autistic. Rye is high functioning and Dar is very, very low functioning. For me to feel real empathy for the first time when my little brother was an adult — well, I felt rather horrible. And then I felt amazed. How is it that, despite my mother constantly telling me otherwise, I had never really noticed that I was asking for my brother to show empathy at every turn, while never offering him the same? How is it that, somehow, both Rye and Dar had learned to demonstrate understanding for others’ emotions, while I and others (except my mom) demonstrated mostly annoyance and suggestions for change when it came to theirs? How is it that my mom is always right??

When my mom adopted my brothers, I was less than impressed. Now I would be expected to help out with my new brothers; if I chose to go out with friends instead, what kind of person would I be? I had always been seen as the “nice” one. I went out anyway. I became the “nice” one at other people’s houses and pitched in a little at my own. I rolled my eyes when my mom insisted that the boys were able to feel the same feelings as I did, but that their challenges meant the feelings would show up in different places and would probably look different. What I saw was one brother rocking, stimming, growling, and hitting himself; another staring blankly in whatever direction he was facing, forever needing to pull up his socks; another threatening to beat up whoever was nearest, avoiding eye contact like the plague; and the little one repeating whatever you said while climbing the walls and putting his lips on heaters. I remember wondering why my mom would want these kids when even their own parents didn’t want them. Even the professionals in our world kept trying to tell my mom to stop getting her hopes up, that my brothers would certainly just end up in institutions and she should stop hoping otherwise. Why did my mom look at them and see adorable little people with challenges that they could overcome if they were only taught to believe in themselves?

Why was she the only one who would believe in them?

I admit to these thoughts because, on the day I finally understood what my mom had been saying all those years, it came to me: In order for my brothers to show empathy, they would have to know what empathy looked like. It would have to be modeled for them. My mom had always done that for them. But I never had. Not really. I have loved them, laughed with them, and snuggled with them. And as they all (other than Dar) became independent men, I have enjoyed conversations over coffee and given much advice on women. But I have rarely shown empathy for their very different but very real pain.

When my seven-year-old niece took Dar’s CD with various renditions of Through the Eyes of Love — which he listens to pretty constantly — and stapled it so we wouldn’t have to listen to it anymore, I laughed and promised Dar another one. Then, I chatted with my niece about how she felt hearing the same song over and over. It was her pain I empathized with, not Dar’s. And when Rye said he didn’t want to come with me to pick my kids up from school because it hurt him to see the school and all the kids doing well and being friends and having backpacks, I told him he was being silly and that I needed him to come with me because it was inconvenient to take him home. Rye empathized with my need for convenience. My autistic brother empathized with me when I had completely ignored his plea for empathy.

Dar has a leaky gut, serious bowel problems, an intention tremor, and other physical issues he is almost always dealing with. Rye feels sounds, sees things floating in the air around his eyes (poo flakes, he calls them), and wants friends but doesn’t know how to be one. My brothers are always dealing with some issue I can’t understand, in the same way that they can’t understand my issues. But they try. When I ask them to change, to be different, they try. When I tell them to care about me and my needs, they do. They are amazing people. I want to be more like them.

How can we say that autistic people have no empathy? Why do so many close their eyes to the constant empathy they show for us neurotypicals and our desire to live lives of convenience and normalcy?  Ever since the day of that epiphany, I have changed, just a little. I still ask my brother to overcome his challenges, just as I ask my children to overcome theirs, and myself to overcome mine.  But I also empathize with the huge extent of the challenges.

My autistic brothers taught me empathy. And they were unbelievably patient.

About the Author: Tsara Shelton is the mother of four wonderful boys. Her two youngest children exhibited symptoms of autism early in life. Having four brothers who were on the autism spectrum made her family uniquely qualified to recognize the symptoms and to create an at-home therapy approach. The boys never did receive an official diagnosis. She now spends most of her time either hanging out with her kids or making amends for her crazy teenage years by helping her mom, Lynette Louise, spread autism awareness.

My Autistic Brothers Taught Me Empathy was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.