January 12, 2013

Empathy and Autism

Posted in AMT's Faves, Life's Little Moments, My Take on Autism tagged , , , , , , at 11:25 am by autismmommytherapist

Holidays 2011 006

Since the tragedy in Newtown much has been written about the fact that the killer, Adam Lanza, had Aspberger’s, a form of autism. I know I read that fact with a heavy heart when it came out, and from reading other bloggers and having conversations with “autism moms and dads”, I know I’m not the only parent of an autistic child to feel that way. I feel we’ve come so far in teaching understanding and acceptance in the years since my oldest son was diagnosed, and it is completely disheartening to think some of that progress has been mitigated by such a heinous act. As I’ve written before in a prior post on the subject, autism didn’t make Adam Lanza a murderer, mental illness did.


The capacity for empathy, or the lack thereof of the perpetrator, has been written about a great deal as well. I don’t dispute that this particular emotional skill was probably missing in this individual. What I do dispute is that it’s missing in most people with autism. I can’t speak for people with autism, and I’m certain most of them wouldn’t want me to. I think that it’s dangerous to assume those with the disorder can’t feel for others just because it seems their reactions to situations are often different than ours, including facial expressions, or an inability to speak. As I’ve said, I won’t speak for people with autism.

But I can speak on behalf of the two I’m raising.

I am a constant and fierce advocate for my children, and as such I’m always talking about them, sharing stories and anecdotes at times with strangers. I try to convey the commonalities they have with “typical” children, because I find that when people can relate to something, they are often more receptive to it. On occasion I run into people who know I write about them but haven’t met them, and I admit it’s gratifying to sometimes see their preconceptions about autism shattered in front of my eyes.

Ironically this happens the most with Justin. Usually within a minute of meeting him he’ll make the “eeee” sound, or exhibit some type of stereotopy that paints him as “different”, and I’ll see a knowing nod from my new acquaintance. What generally stuns them is my son’s affectionate and generous soul, as he frequently engages with me in some sort of physical embrace, even when we’re out and about in the community. This is usually followed by a considerable amount of gazing into my eyes, which often seems to engender a great deal of surprise in our new friend. Both affectionate and generous with eye contact- two preconceptions about autism dismissed in a matter of moments.

I don’t want to leave out my younger son, because empathy abounds within him as well. A perfect example of this is his reactions to “Moviepalooza”, the McCaffertys answer to cold weather and illness coupled with not a lot of things to do outside of the house. The last day of our holiday vacation I spent curled up on the couch with my youngest child, sharing the experience of ET with him for the very first time. He was sucked into the film from the first scene (I know this because he barely asked me for snacks during the movie), held rapt by the storyline, occasionally peppering me with questions and concerns.

When we got to the grand denouement where ET finally goes home, he literally had to sit on my lap, so overcome with sadness was he that an alien and a little boy had to part. Genuine tears ensued, with promises by me that ET would come back to visit (I had to say something), promises that seemed to placate him. He asked me twice later that evening if ET could really come back, and I assured him that since it would happen in his imagination, he could envision whatever he wanted. He smiled, and said he was going to write the script for ET Two.

Empathy and creativity at work in a child with autism. Imagine.

People sometimes ask me why I write, and in part it’s because of this. Yes, my kids are different from the “norm” in many ways, but we’re all “different” from each other, just to varying degrees. We can retain our uniqueness and still find those commonalities that bind us together, that common ground that makes us all an integral part of society at large, and an important part of our smaller communities in general. We are all more alike than we think. But regardless, we need to demonstrate not just respect for our differences, but celebrate and learn from them too. Every day I learn something new from my children, am constantly amazed at how they teach me and those around them.

They often leave me in awe. And if you knew them, I’m confident you’d feel that way too.


  1. What a great post! I can attest to your boys amazing abilities to feel, to empathize and to understand emotions…you and your boys leave me in awe all the time!

  2. Ann Kilter said,

    There is a big difference between being unable to express empathy and being unable to feel empathy.

  3. Ruth Ormsbee said,

    What a great blog Kim,. It was something for one to think about . I just have to trying to catch up on your blogs, as I was away for three weeks over the Christmas and New Years holiday. God Bless all.
    Take care. Love to all. Aunt Ruthie

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