by Elise Ronan
Kindness and empathy are rather misunderstood emotions when it comes to those on the autism spectrum. There are recent studies that theorize that it’s not that autistics lack empathy or kindness; it’s just that they are so overwhelmed by their empathetic emotions that they need to turn them off or be consumed. So the issue surrounding autistics is not that they don’t empathize, but that, in fact, they empathize too much. Autistics, unlike their neurotypical peers, have no filter to protect their own emotions and their own well-being when dealing with the vagaries and cruelties of life.
I know. I have seen it firsthand with both of my boys.
It is never that the boys don’t care. It is, without a doubt, that when they hear of a cruelty or an unkindness it takes over their souls. It is not an obsession. It is not a perseveration. It is a feeling of being lost and not understanding that they cannot solve the world’s issues on their own. At times, they don’t seem to grasp that one can only do so much as an individual person. In fact, they feel that they have failed.
So that is our mission with them. Not to teach them to be empathetic but to help them understand their limitations as human beings — to know that you can give charity, help at a food bank, and feed people at a soup kitchen, but that in the end, there will still be those who go to bed hungry at night, and that you as a human being did not fail. We can only do so much as one person. They need to understand that our limitations make our efforts no less important, no less heartfelt, no less perfect, no less helpful, and no less appreciated in the moment.
It is times like this that I try, despite CM1′ s rejection of religion, to bring up what the Talmud says about kindness, empathy, and charity:
To save a single life is to have saved an entire world.
The Rabbis knew that human beings are just that — human beings. We can do just so much in our lives. It is the effort that counts. A single kindness, even holding open a door for the person behind you, makes this a better world. A smile, a thank you, and a helping hand, to the person right in front of you, says more about your life than anything else.
About the Author: Elise Ronan is the mother of two young men with Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on her blog, Raising Asperger’s Kids, and is reprinted here by permission.