Autism and the Big Heart

by Brenda Rothman

A game of toy bowling at home has gone awry and Jack is in tears.

Really, he’s tired and hungry.  Though he doesn’t think he’s either.  When I say he is, it makes him angry.  I understand.  It would make me angry if someone said that to me while I was upset.  Completely invalidates my emotions.  So I try again.

Me: I know you’re upset.  Listen, your pizza is still baking, but let’s get you something to eat before that.  You wanna try a hot cross bun?

We were in the supermarket bakery yesterday when we spotted them.  “HOT CROSS BUNS!,” I shouted to Jack, a few steps behind me.   We’ve been singing the song and  I can’t believe someone makes them! And that they’re in our supermarket!

Jack: Really? Hot cross buns?
Me: You wanna get them?
Jack: Sure!

They look different than I imagined.  The bun looks fruited and the cross is white icing.

Back at home, Jack refuses offers of hot cross buns for snack or dessert.  I’m a little puzzled, but attribute it to tummy troubles or just not ready yet.

So now that he’s having a hard time at bowling, I try again.

Me: You wanna try a hot cross bun?

Jack’s head is down.  When he looks up at me, his brown eyes are filled with tears, his mouth frowning open in a cry.

Me: Aw, sweetie!  What is it? You don’t have to eat them if you don’t want to.
Jack, sobbing : It’s the cross!

Oh, the cross!  Jack loves crosses.  The whole church thing, really, but especially the crosses.  We’ve gone to churches, gift shops, bought “plain” crosses and crucifixes that he can hold, set up a toy church with a cross on it.  He loves it all, the mass, the details, the words.

Of course he doesn’t want to eat a cross.  My son has such a big heart.  He wants to keep things that he loves, not EAT them.  He was horrified at the dog-shaped cake.  Why would anyone want to eat a dog?!  Even a fake dog?

Jack believes everything has feelings.  Of course people.  Of course animals.  But every thing.  Even trees branches hurt when they are cut.  Even ice feels pain when it is broken.  Even water is saddened that it is being tossed over a high edge to fall way down below.

My little animist.  And who am I to argue.  Because he might be right.

Why?  Because I’ve always been the one with the huge heart.  The one who cried at wandering cats, at orphaned ducks, at getting rid of stuff.  People have tried talking me out of it because it looks like I’m suffering.  But my empathy is my gateway to connection.  It has allowed me to understand people.  To feel for those less fortunate.  To want to help.  And, most importantly, to really stand in my son’s shoes and see the world the way he sees it.

Yes, my child with the huge heart believes every thing is living and feeling.  My son, the one with autism, that same autism that supposedly means that he has no empathy and can’t understand other people’s feelings.  That “symptom” is so far from the truth, it should be laughable by now.

If my son is right, that all things are sentient beings, it makes no sense to be a vegan alone because even plants feel.  It makes no sense to tell ourselves that it’s okay to kill because we’re only killing bugs.  It makes no sense to have a real Christmas tree because it looks so pretty and smells so good.  It would mean that I’ve spent years killing a living, feeling being, standing it up in my living room, and letting it die while I hang sparkly things on it.

Oh, my child.  How am I going to have a tree next Christmas? Or eat anything?

But, as Jack keeps reminding me, it’s not my job to turn off his feelings or invalidate his emotions.  If I get uncomfortable with his being upset about loss or pain, that is my fear.  I need to sit with my discomfort and think it through.  But, here, right now, I need to support him while he’s upset, not change his mind.

Or his heart.

About the Author: Brenda Rothman, the mother of an autistic son, writes about autism, parenting, and shoes on her blog Mama Be Good Brenda is also on Twitter @mamabegood, where she enjoys margatweetas, and on Facebook at, where she spills coffee creamer.

All images are the exclusive property of Brenda Rothman and Mama Be Good and are protected under the United States and International Copyright laws. The images may not be reproduced, copied, transmitted or manipulated without the written permission of Brenda Rothman at Mama Be Good. © 2009 – 2012 Mama Be Good.

Autism and the Big Heart first appeared on Brenda’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.


2 thoughts on “Autism and the Big Heart

  1. Jean says:

    It’s so important to shine a light on the depth of emotion our autie kids experience.
    As you so rightly point out, our job as parents is to not avoid the discomfort, but experience it without fear. XXX

  2. Amy says:

    Having Asperger’s, I recognise myself in Jack! I also recently scored 31 out of 36 on reading the mind through the eyes (apparently as an Aspie I’m supposed to score 21!) Recently we lost my grandad, and I can be *too* empathetic; I’m in an all-autie/Aspie band (I am the only member without autism) and I panicked (not a panic attack, just a ‘we can’t do this!’ moment…we in fact *are* performing it on Friday and my parents will be in the audience) when we began rehearsing See My Baby Jive, because it features the line ‘your daddy ain’t comin’ home’! Asperger’s can be a pain during these already difficult times; after every death in the family, I spend a good long while finding things wrong with my health, through empathy with the person who passed. Could be coincidence but the last time I saw my grandad, he was giving the death rattle; on the way back from the hospital, I could barely breathe! On a lighter note, I’m also not good at losing gracefully, just like Jack! Some things never change!

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