So, about this autism and empathy thing….

People with autism lack empathy.

Really?? ….I’m confused. Do the people who say this actually live with a person with autism… do they spend a lot of time getting to know people on the spectrum?  Have they experienced sad events together with their friends who are autistic?

I have.  Many many times over the years.  I’ve seen their anguish when a friend or animal is sick or hurting…. and I’ve seen how quickly they respond when a stranger needs help.  I see …and yes, I can feel…their pain when they have unknowingly hurt someone’s feelings or disappointed someone that they care about. I hear their apologies, and those apologies come from a place so deep and sincere that I expect that any second they will shut down completely out of sheer empathy OVERLOAD.

Lack empathy?  Not a chance.  But I do understand why so many neurotypical folks PERCEIVE a lack of empathy in their students or acquaintances with autism.

The other night around 10… Ray and Michael grabbed the lantern and headed up the hill to Ray’s house.  Down at the main house, I was checking Ray’s mouse live- trap, since we have had an influx of cute little meadow mice lately with the coming of spring.  I opened it up, and one of those cute little meadow mice jumped out of the trap and into the sleeve of my shirt and ran up my arm and onto my stomach… under my shirt. Now… I am not afraid of mice. Or snakes, spiders, rats or scorpions.  I live with them, Ray collects pets like this. I like all these critters almost as much as Ray does.

courtesy of bluebison.net

But it caught me by surprise and I screamed… LOUDLY.  and CONTINUOUSLY for what seemed  a very long time… because I could not get the thing out of my shirt and it was running around on my body.  Andy and Jose just watched me jumping around… and afterwards, Andy says ‘WOW! You scream like a girl!’

Ten minutes later, Ray and Michael return, carrying LEGOS of course.  Still excited, Jose and Andy tell the mouse story…. and Michael says…..

‘we heard you screaming all the way up the hill when we were walking up.  It sounded like you were really hurt, or like something was attacking you’

and I said ‘then why didn’t you run back?’

and Michael says..’ well  we were pretty intent on finding this LEGO piece that we were missing.  We’re back now.’

Uhh OK.

This is not lack of empathy.  It’s something else, hyper focus …or something.  To their credit in this particular case, I truly believe that sometimes the guys here assume that I am some kind of super human that can not be physically hurt… similar to a Bionicle or HALO individual perhaps, guys?…. (perhaps it is my ‘Bossy Big Sister‘ New Yorker attitude).

I am neurotypical but have lived with adults on the spectrum for 30 years. This kind of focus is going on all the time here.   Often, a problem will arise around a disruption of focus…of hobbies… or computers, televisions, or music…. something in the present environment that has to be shared with others.  And when this kind of focus is interrupted, these guys often have little tolerance or understanding of the person who is interrupting them.

I have tried to get them to explain to me how they are feeling, but I’ve never once succeeded at the time it is happening. It is during these instances that you see another side of these generally kind and gentle, compassionate guys. No matter how many times they are asked ‘how would YOU feel if …… ‘   or… ‘don’t you think it’s time for someone else to get a chance, you’ve had your chance for 4 hours’… there’s just ALWAYS a reason (actually, many reasons) why they shouldn’t have been interrupted because what they were doing was very important. So sure, in that particular moment, there is not much empathy… anywhere.

but by the next day…. they always rationally discuss possible solutions to the problem… and they apologize to everyone involved.

So am I missing something here?  Is this what is meant by ‘lacking empathy’?  I respectfully disagree.

April is Autism Awareness month, and tomorrow is April 2, World Autism Awareness Day.  The numbers are out and autism is now 1 in 88 births… we are past ‘awareness’.  Isn’t it time it became ‘Autism Appreciation and Acceptance’  instead?

And that is my rant for the month.

The border collie puppies visit the Hill

P.S. And speaking of empathy… in case you missed it, the family dog passed away recently, and I blogged about it here

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4 responses to “So, about this autism and empathy thing….

  1. Utterly, totally see your point. Thanks 🙂

  2. I LOVE Andy’s comment!

  3. A great explanation. As a guy with Aspergers, I understand both sides. I have lots of empathy and caring, but if I’m focused and doing something, it’s very difficult to break away from that (unless the house is on fire. Even then…).

  4. I am very much in tune with this and have had my own troubles in that area.

    My wife can become very upset if I say “just a moment and carry on what I am doing and, as you say, there is much sorrow and apologising afterward.

    But I have a solution tat is working – for me.

    I have made it a goal to stop immediately and respond. Not because I am ignoring what I want to do, but by making it an objective, an interest, something that has to be right, part of my environment.
    Responding is what I have to do to keep my environment right.

    And it is working! We can do it if we make it something that we want – no we HAVE to do!

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