Ladybugs: Autism, Empathy, and Processing Grief

by Leah Kelley

As a parent of a child with autism and as a teacher, I have a difficulty when others report that students with ASD lack empathy.I try to correct this faulty judgment when I have the opportunity to do so, by explaining that there really is not lack of empathy, nor any absence of the ability to feel this. There may however be a different way of processing or expressing the feeling, and also a challenge with understanding the perspective and therefore the experience of others. This is fundamentally different from the judgment that an individual lacks the capacity for empathy.

My son H has recently begun to process grief. It hit him hard at age 10 when his Behaviour Interventionist Roberta’s dog was sick and dying. It hit him all at once. He did not seem process it at two when his great-grandma died, or at 5 when our guinea pig died, or at 6 when his rabbit died, or at 8 when his other great-grandma died. He was somehow not visibly affected. He did not ask about it and he may have cried a few tears… but then it was basically never mentioned again. I realize, in retrospect, that there was likely much more going on that I did not at the time understand – but this post does not explore these complexities. Instead it tells a different story; the story of the grief and processing that was apparent much later.

H was devastated by the news that Roberta’s dog, Boomer, was dying and generously gave the dog one of his own stuffies to comfort him. When I suggested that he might like the stuffed bear back after Boomer had passed away, he said no – it would be for Roberta to keep… so that she would have the teddy to cuddle if she was lonely when she no longer had her dog.

I talked to a number of our school district counselors and all suggested that it was important for him to let his tears come so we spent many an evening with H in tears. We encouraged him to cry and we also started him seeing a counselor privately to assist him with processing his emotions.

Shortly after this we had to tell him that our neighbour, Mrs. L, was also dying. I didn’t really want to because he seemed so fragile and I knew he would be further devastated. We again welcomed his tears and his many questions. I noticed that he was looking to me to see if I was crying when he was, and he often asked if I was sad too. We reinforced that it was important to let his sadness come and cry his tears, or else his sadness may come out in other ways, such as anger.

In retrospect, one of the things we encouraged that proved to be most helpful was to be giving toward others and to work to comfort them and understand that they were grieving as well. His focus on the perspective of others helped him to move the process along for himself and to feel that he had some power. He couldn’t change the circumstances, but he was empowered by his ability to give to others.

Interestingly, we found that he seemed most anxious and concerned about how he would remember those he had lost. He seemed aware of his own challenges with episodic memory and we began to build and revisit the memories he had by telling stories of the dog and our neighbour and also the kindness he was showing in the process.

I wrote a story for him that recalled his experiences with our neighbour, Mrs. L, and his visit to her in the hospital, during which he read her the story Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. I assisted him in writing his own lists based on the book The Tenth Best Thing About Barney, which he was able to share as well. He showed his appreciation for others and it gave his feeling of loss a place to be… surrounded by other feelings.

I also worked with him to associate memories with real items in a meaningful way for those he was losing. He subsequently began to create memory symbols for those he had lost long, long ago and to have tears for them as well. A ladybug came to represent our neighbour, and a goldfish represented his great-grandmother who passed away when he was 2. This might be best explained with an excerpt of the story I wrote for him:

That same day when H’s mom was working in the garden, she called him outside. She showed him a little ladybug that she had found… the first ladybug of spring.

She said, “H, I want you to hold this ladybug. Look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?”

H held out his hand and the little creature climbed up his fingers.

“Do you like it?” his mom asked.

“Yes” H responded.

“Can you keep it forever?”

“No…” H replied.

“That’s right…” said his mom. “You can hold it for a short time, and you can enjoy how beautiful it is. You can’t keep it forever… but you can remember this moment…

H looked at his mom and then looked again at the ladybug.

“The ladybug is like Mrs. L We can’t keep her forever, and now she has to fly away home… just like a ladybug. What we get to keep is how wonderful it was to know her while she was here and we can hold her memory in our hearts forever.”

H’s mom smiled at him… and he smiled back to her.

She said, “We are lucky… whenever we see a ladybug in the garden now we will think of Mrs. L. We have a connection to a sweet memory.”

We manually created and inserted the physical association with a concrete item to assist him with sorting and organizing his memories. The symbols that represented different people seemed to assist him with feeling that he had something to hang onto and a place to revisit and access his memories and to process his sadness. It gave him a sense of control.

Last week H’s other great-grandmother passed away. She was 103 years old and had been suffering from dementia for many years. Even though he had only met her as a baby, he was still upset when we told him of her passing. However, he seemed most upset that he didn’t really know her, so my husband and I began to tell him stories of his great-grandmother and we assisted H in writing them down.

This week H read these stories aloud at the memorial. This was an amazing gift and tribute because after many years of needing constant care and not being socially present in the lives of those attending, this little boy brought to the fore the memories of his great-grandma at her best. It was touching to see the shift in the mood as he brought her to life once again in their minds.

This little boy of mine has a very big heart, and a lot of strength. He has a huge capacity for empathy. He just needed a framework of support to assist him with processing in a slightly different way.

About the Author: Leah Kelley is a K–12 Special Needs Resource Teacher, a parent of a child with ASD, and an experienced primary teacher who blogs at Thirty Days of Autism. She completed her Master’s Degree in Education at Simon Fraser University, focusing on supporting educators in understanding the experience of students with autism.

Please Note: This article, originally written in 2009, was previously published as Ladybugs in the Spring 2011 edition of the Journal English Practice (the journal of the BC Teachers of English Language Arts), and has also been featured on the POPARD Website (Provincial Outreach Program for Autism and Related Disorders). It appears on the Autism and Empathy site by permission of the author.



9 thoughts on “Ladybugs: Autism, Empathy, and Processing Grief

  1. Katie says:

    I am an adult with Asperger’s. I lost my dad when I was 16 (2012 marks the 20th anniversary of this) and last year (Feb. 2011) my mom died just a couple of months before my 35th birthday. My dad died suddenly of a heart attack at 44 years old, my mom died unexpectedly of complications from influenza at 62 years old. I was wondering if you have any suggestions for myself to process and deal with this kind of grief.

  2. […] Excerpt from: Ladybugs: Autism, Empathy, and Processing Grief | Autism and … […]

  3. Bonita Holland says:

    I am neurotypical and it took me about 5 years to process and deal with the grief when both my parents died. Even now I have days when I really feel their loss again almost as if it has just happened, although it was 12 and 10 years ago. The things that helped me are-
    Keeping really busy even though all I wanted to do was be lazy and fed up and cry
    Trying new things- even things that made me anxious
    Visiting places where we lived as a family when I was a child
    Visiting relatives to talk about my parents and gather stories
    Writing down stories about my parents
    Joining a genealogy website and researching family history- this was brilliant fun

    I hope you have a good support network of family or friends, as they can help too. Best wishes to you.

  4. quirkyandlaughing says:

    I think Aspie empathy is poorly misunderstood in general. I know I can’t make a generalized statement, but it seems that once Aspies get it, we feel more intensely than an NT. Personally, it does take me longer to get it, though.

    I think this is a great post, and I am very interested in a future post that explores the complexity of the grief process as it relates to Asperger’s.

  5. carl says:

    As the father to three boys on the spectrum, one of whom was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury last year, I can say that no one has any idea of how misunderstood empathy is in our kids. Of the three, the only one I can say for certain doesn’t have any empathy, is the youngest. And that is because he has frontal lobe brain damage that physically prevents him from having it. He is learning how to interpret and project empathy at the apporpriate moments, but doesn’t show it spontaneously.

    my most recent post is:

  6. Maarit says:

    Thank you for sharing that – brought tears to my eyes.
    What a wonderful gift a young boy could bring to a family!

  7. Leigh says:

    Powerful and beautiful post. Thank you.

  8. Rita Jordan says:

    I feel somewhat abashed as a professional, but I have had quite a lot of experience of working with many individuals on the autism spectrum of all ages and I have been fortunate to count some of them as my friends. Over the 45 years I have been working in the field I have struggled to make sense of the different ‘autisms’ we group together under the ASD label and in particular the role of self/other awareness and empathy. I have never bought into a ‘tom’ deficit in autism since it seems to me the exact opposite of the case. NTs have instinctual processes which enable them to ‘sense’ other minds whereas those with autism, it seems to me, have to use cognitive processes to ‘work it out’ i.e. they are the only people who have to develop a ‘theory’ of mind and try to apply it to their experiences. This is one of the reasons that being with people is often exhausting and stressful for them. Apropos empathy I always point out that one can only feel empathy for another if one understands what they are thinking and feeling. It may be true that people with autism have problems developing this understanding but, I suggest, NTs have equal difficulty when it comes to people developing atypically e.g. people with autism. Thus NTs and those with ASC have a MUTUAL problem with empathy and the goal of all those who want to teach or support those with an ASC effectively must be to try to develop this empathy in ourselves. It will be difficult and we may not get it entirely right, but we will learn so much more about the difficulties people with autism face as we try to do so. Thank you to all the people with an ASC I have met who have tried to help me understand and to the bloggers here. I am getting rather ancient now and maybe I will never fully understand but I have met so many brave and honest people in my attempt to understand. Please do not give up on NTs. Sometimes we are very stupid and sometimes it is just too hard (as I am sure you understand from your own perspective). But we do need to understand if we are to learn to live happily together to the benefit of us all.

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