From the Archives: Early Observations of Empathy and Autism

by Devon Alley

In these snippets from the archives, I contemplate and challenge the common belief that autistic people lack empathy, since I see so much evidence contrary to this idea in my own daughter’s behaviors. I also react to the film I Am Sam.

June 9th, 2004:

I think I just traumatized my daughter by reading The Lorax by Dr. Seuss to her for the first time. When we got to the part where the last truffula tree is chopped down, she began to whimper, and by the time the Lorax lifted himself away, she was *really* crying. And there was no consoling her. “The Lorax is gone, oh no,” she kept crying. She didn’t want to go to bed. It really, really upset her. And I felt *horrible*.

So, what I’m basically saying, is that y’all need to start planting truffula trees, like, *now*. So that the Lorax will come back, and my little starfish princess will no longer be sad.

June 17th, 2004:

Watched I Am Sam last night.

Every once in a while I find myself buying the soundtrack to a movie *long* before I ever actually see it, and that was the case with this film. Found it for $5 at a used CD shop in my old hometown, one of those little random purchases I’m so famous for. Loved it, because, well, it’s all covers of Beatles’ songs. How can you not? (Unless, of course, you’re an Elvis Man…)

But, the movie. Why have I not seen this movie before now? Well, obviously because I *needed* to see it *now*. But it’s plucked out my heart and placed it on a silver tray and shoved my brains so violently back into my head that my skull is still vibrating from the impact.

So. Let me explain why. Because, as most of you know, I don’t usually watch movies of my own volition, and when I do, the ones that deeply effect me are foreign films or bizarre old films or crazy dream-like films or children’s films. Why has something so box-office-worthy sent such a dramatic earthquake into my foundations?

When I was a child, I was obsessed with the Beatles. I mean *obsessed*. I tend to fixate on certain obsessions at different points in my life, and from about the ages of eight to eleven, the Beatles were one of my main ones. I watched every single movie, I saved up allowance money to buy albums, I had posters and pictures, I read every single book in every single library I came across on them. By the age of ten, I could easily tell you all of the various “hidden” messages that were meant to “reveal” that Paul was dead — from wearing the black rose in the insert to The Magical Mystery Tour, to the Shakespearian death scene at the end of “I Am The Walrus,” to the fact that Paul is barefoot (like a corpse) when crossing the street on the Abbey Road cover. I played “Revolution 9” backwards on my turntable to hear “Turn me on dead man,” and I played the gibberish between “Blackbird” and “Piggies” backward in the same fashion to hear “Paul is dead, miss him miss him miss him.” At *ten years old*. *Completely* obsessed.

So, you have a main character who speaks in bizarre, echolalic metaphors like my daughter, and those metaphors happen to deal with a subject that I was once incredibly obsessed with.

And the fact that, I got it. Without even trying, I got it. The way Sam is portrayed to think and react to the world is very much the way A. thinks and reacts to the world, with these subsets of skills and learning she’s incredibly focused and highly advanced at (one of her preschool teachers stopped me today and said, “I didn’t know A. could read!” and I smiled and nodded, and she added “Big words! Like ‘coral reef’! That’s amazing for a four-year-old!” and I keep smiling and nodding.) But also, not being able to grasp the Way Things Work In The World. To *have* to have things organized in order for them to make sense. When Sam goes to eat at a different place other than IHOP, that’s *exactly* a more verbalized version of the kind of fits my daughter throws whenever her routine is screwed up.

Also, the whole empathy thing. I’m beginning to think that this whole “autistic children have a problem with empathy” drivel is a whole bunch of absolute crap. My daughter has a difficult time understand social cues, that is very true, and often she’d rather just ignore you than to try to figure out the rules, and that is also true. But, she *wants* people to be happy. People crying upset her. And when she’s around a gathering of adults where I seem to feel comfortable, she’ll just randomly hug people and crawl into strangers’ laps. If I want to punish her for something, all I have to say is, “you’re making me very sad right now,” and A. gets *so* upset. *My* theory (when it comes to my daughter, at least) is that autistic children are *highly* empathetic, perhaps so much so that they *have* to shut the rest of the world out in order to not be driven crazy by it.

But… ack, I have three minutes left to lunch. Basically, the movie simply amplified my already-existing feelings of “I don’t want to change my daughter — I want to change the rest of the world.” I mean, she’s *beautiful*. She’s bizarre and she talks to herself and god knows if I’ll ever manage to get her to call a viewfinder a “viewfinder” instead of “mosquito population” (because she first saw a viewfinder on Lilo and Stitch), but… this is who she *is*. This is what makes her beautiful and unique and bizarre and changeling-like. Her world, the place she lives in her head — from the glimpses I get of it, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to me than this crazy fast-paced don’t-pay-attention-to-detail, just-get-the-job-done world we live in now. Where talking to strangers is wrong and hugging people is wrong and asking the world if they’ve seen your imaginary friend is just bizarre. But these are the things I *love* about my daughter. Is it hard — hell yes, it’s hard — the same way it’s hard for Lucy to have Sam as a father. But, she never would give that up, not for anything, not for a million perfectly normal lives. And neither would I.

About the Author: Devon Alley is the mother of a child diagnosed with high-functioning autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, From Inside the Puzzle: Raising a Child with Autism, and is reprinted here by permission.