The Unconventional Ways My Son With Autism Shows Empathy


It’s a common misconception that people with autism lack empathy. After watching the way my youngest son interacts with others, I know this isn’t true. While people with autism sometimes have a difficult time understanding the emotions of others (Don’t we all?), that doesn’t mean they can’t empathize.

There are times my son feels so intensely for other people that he’s actually overwhelmed by his emotions and doesn’t know what to do with them. He’ll shove them down to regain control, so what looks like a lack of empathy is perhaps his way of dealing with an excess of it. It’s that intensity of his Big Feelings that sometimes causes him to act out, and he has needed coaching over the years to help him properly express his empathy.

Although hugs might be a little too tight or knock you down, it’s only because they’re given with every inch of his body.

When he was 4 years old, we needed to do some allergy testing on his big brother. It took all my strength, plus a nurse, to hold my oldest down for the blood draw. Seeing his brother crying and incredibly upset was too much for my tiny vigilante. When the procedure was over, my youngest son rushed at the legs of the nurse and started swinging, yelling, “You leave my brother alone!” Luckily she was a good sport, and she was even impressed by the passionate way he defended his big brother. I talked with him later about finding less physical ways to stand up for people.

This is an especially important lesson for the times he misinterprets a situation. When this happens, he can end up looking like the aggressor.

Another time, I was upset about something and told my son about it as he went to bed. He got very quiet and closed his eyes. I thought he hadn’t listened to me, but after a few moments I realized his eyes were brimming over with tears. When I asked him what was wrong, he raised his voice about how unfair the situation was. As a fighter and defender, he does not abide injustice. I regretted burdening him with my minor disappointments, especially right before bedtime.

Sometimes my son is very blunt, yet exceedingly sincere, and says things out loud most people only think. Several years ago we stopped by the hospital to see a dear friend holding vigil by the bedside of her ailing father. The prognosis was not good, and I was honest with my children about the situation. My sweet son walked up to our friend and said, “I’m so sorry that your dad will probably die today.” I gasped inwardly, worried the starkness of his comment would upset her. She looked at him, his eyes full of sorrow and sincerity, and drew him in for a hug. She later told me that she found comfort in his caring and honesty, even if his comment was a bit surprising.

And now for my favorite example: One of my son’s classmates suffered a burn injury on her leg (that’s not the part I like) and we were told she might miss the last month of school. He was very sad and  asked, “Can we maybe go visit her and help her or something? Maybe cheer her up?”

Each of the students made their injured classmate a card. 

The first line of my son’s read, “That burn must hurt an awful lot.” Below were two drawings captioned, “What it looks like,” and “How it must feel.” I hope his young friend wasn’t upset to see an entire leg on fire! Thankfully her injury was not as severe as the picture. In situations like this, I have to hope people take his comments or actions in the spirit they are intended — in this case, it was care and concern.

To give it a more positive spin, the inside of the card was adorned with a 3-D heart and smiley face. He also wrote, “Water can’t fix it, but I’m sure love can! Get well soon!” My son’s teacher told me that the card made her cry.

Since we live near his classmate, we were given the important task of delivering the cards and some make-up work. When we arrived at her house, he said apologetically, “Here is your work,” but then added happily, “And here are some cards we made for you! Mine is probably the most loving.” I had to laugh. He delights and surprises me every day with his creative, funny and caring self.

Just because my son is sometimes overwhelmed, or responds to the feelings of others in an unconventional way, doesn’t make autism and empathy mutually exclusive concepts. My son is proof. I believe we need to work harder to understand and appreciate these reactions. 

A version of this post originally appeared on Seriously Not Boring. You can also find Jennifer Bittner at her Seriously Not Boring Facebook page.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one commonly held opinion within the community surrounding your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) that doesn’t resonate with you? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Sheryl Sandberg’s Beautiful Tribute to Her Husband 30 Days After His Death


On May 1, 2015, SurveyMonkey CEO Dave Goldberg died at age 47 after sustaining a head trauma. Goldberg was on vacation with family and friends in Mexico when he collapsed at the gym and hit his head, according to The New York Times.

Sheryl Sandberg, Goldberg’s wife and the chief operating officer at Facebook, penned an incredibly moving essay on Facebook on Wednesday, June 3, 30 days after her husband’s death. She eloquently opens up about the nature of grieving, what she’s learned about herself since her husband’s death and what it’s like to move forward following a tragedy.

Read the entire essay below:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband — the first 30 days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: ‘Let me not die while I am still alive.’ I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.

I have lived 30 years in these 30 days. I am 30 years sadder. I feel like I am 30 years wiser.

I have gained a more profound understanding of what it is to be a mother, both through the depth of the agony I feel when my children scream and cry and from the connection my mother has to my pain. She has tried to fill the empty space in my bed, holding me each night until I cry myself to sleep. She has fought to hold back her own tears to make room for mine. She has explained to me that the anguish I am feeling is both my own and my children’s, and I understood that she was right as I saw the pain in her own eyes.

I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was, ‘It is going to be OK.’ That voice in his head would scream, ‘How do you know it is going to be OK? Do you not understand that I might die?’ I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, ‘You and your children will find happiness again,’ my heart tells me, ‘Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again.’ Those who have said, ‘You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good’ comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”— almost always asked with the best of intentions — is better replaced with ‘How are you today?’ When I am asked, ‘How are you?’ I stop myself from shouting, ‘My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am?’ When I hear, ‘How are you today?’ I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

I have learned some practical stuff that matters. Although we now know that Dave died immediately, I didn’t know that in the ambulance. The trip to the hospital was unbearably slow. I still hate every car that did not move to the side, every person who cared more about arriving at their destination a few minutes earlier than making room for us to pass. I have noticed this while driving in many countries and cities. Let’s all move out of the way. Someone’s parent or partner or child might depend on it.

I have learned how ephemeral everything can feel — and maybe everything is. That whatever rug you are standing on can be pulled right out from under you with absolutely no warning. In the last thirty days, I have heard from too many women who lost a spouse and then had multiple rugs pulled out from under them. Some lack support networks and struggle alone as they face emotional distress and financial insecurity. It seems so wrong to me that we abandon these women and their families when they are in greatest need.

I have learned to ask for help — and I have learned how much help I need. Until now, I have been the older sister, the COO, the doer and the planner. I did not plan this, and when it happened, I was not capable of doing much of anything. Those closest to me took over. They planned. They arranged. They told me where to sit and reminded me to eat. They are still doing so much to support me and my children.

I have learned that resilience can be learned. Adam M. Grant taught me that three things are critical to resilience and that I can work on all three. Personalization—realizing it is not my fault. He told me to ban the word ‘sorry.’ To tell myself over and over, ‘This is not my fault.’ Permanence — remembering that I won’t feel like this forever. This will get better. Pervasiveness — this does not have to affect every area of my life; the ability to compartmentalize is healthy.

For me, starting the transition back to work has been a savior, a chance to feel useful and connected. But I quickly discovered that even those connections had changed. Many of my coworkers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why — they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt. One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing. One of my favorite cartoons of all time has an elephant in a room answering the phone, saying, ‘It’s the elephant.’ Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.

At the same time, there are moments when I can’t let people in. I went to Portfolio Night at school where kids show their parents around the classroom to look at their work hung on the walls. So many of the parents — all of whom have been so kind — tried to make eye contact or say something they thought would be comforting. I looked down the entire time so no one could catch my eye for fear of breaking down. I hope they understood.

I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before — like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, ‘Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.’ My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.

I am truly grateful to the many who have offered their sympathy. A colleague told me that his wife, whom I have never met, decided to show her support by going back to school to get her degree — something she had been putting off for years. Yes! When the circumstances allow, I believe as much as ever in leaning in. And so many men — from those I know well to those I will likely never know — are honoring Dave’s life by spending more time with their families.

I can’t even express the gratitude I feel to my family and friends who have done so much and reassured me that they will continue to be there. In the brutal moments when I am overtaken by the void, when the months and years stretch out in front of me endless and empty, only their faces pull me out of the isolation and fear. My appreciation for them knows no bounds.

I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, ‘But I want Dave. I want option A.’ He put his arm around me and said, ‘Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.’

Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the shit out of option B. And even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A. I will always mourn for option A. As Bono sang, ‘There is no end to grief . . . and there is no end to love.’ I love you, Dave.

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Photo from Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook page.

Sandberg’s beautiful tribute to Dave Goldberg was originally posted here.

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I Don’t Need a College Degree to Understand This About My Son With Autism


My husband doesn’t have a college degree. I’m not passing judgment, just supplying a bit of background information. You see, when I do something dumb, he sometimes makes a snarky comment about the “usefulness” of my degree. Or, if I share an anecdote about something ridiculous at work, he might snort incredulously, “And these people are college graduates?”

Truth be told, I can be a snob, too. I’m not above thinking my degree gives me an edge.

When I was pregnant, I felt a combination of fear and bravado. I’d never planned on having children (Note to self: a bachelor’s degree is not a contraceptive.), and I’d never thought of myself as a mother. But I had nine months to mentally prepare. I treated pregnancy like a 400-level course with childbirth as the final exam. I read all the books that I could. I researched like there could be a pop quiz at any moment.

As I imagined what my life was going to become, I often assured myself I could handle it. Why? Because I didn’t have just any old degree – I majored in education and then taught elementary children for almost seven years. I took graduate classes and participated in countless workshops, lectures and other forms of professional development. Surely, if anyone can be prepared for parenthood, it has to be a teacher, right?

See what I mean about some people with college degrees not being too bright?

I was an itinerant teacher back in my former life. That meant I traveled between classrooms and schools. In those seven years of teaching, I worked at fifteen different schools and taught thousands of different students. Now that I’ve learned of its prevalence, one might assume I interacted with at least a few students with autism spectrum disorder. I only remember one.

Now that I’m a mother, I realize how little I really know about anything. But if going to college and being a teacher prepared me for anything, it’s to be a lifelong learner. I’m not disappointed I don’t know it all. In fact, I look forward to learning and discovering new things with my child.

Becoming a parent, especially the parent of a child with autism, has been a humbling experience. These days, I often think how woefully unprepared I was for motherhood. It’s not the life I imagined while my son grew inside me. It was not the life I anticipated when he was born and hit those early developmental milestones. It’s not the life I expected when I mistook his spinning for dancing or believed that his interest in lining up objects was just how all children played.

It’s been three years since my son’s diagnosis. I cried that day, but not because the doctor confirmed what we already expected. I didn’t cry over the loss of the life I had been imagining. Instead, I cried when I heard the psychologist read remarks written by our son’s teacher on an evaluation form:

“Philip is easy to love.”

It doesn’t take a college degree to appreciate that.


A version of this post originally appeared on That Cynking Feeling

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An Invasive Touch Left Me Hating My Blindness. This Helped Me Heal.


The first friend I made in college turned out not to be a friend at all. Though his invasive touches didn’t leave a scratch on my skin, his betrayal of my trust was devastating. I couldn’t help but think that my inability to see had made me vulnerable, and for the first time in my life I began to hate my blindness.

The only lifeline I had at school was my a cappella group. But it was only November, they were acquaintances, not friends, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell them what had happened. I worried they would perceive me as immature, melodramatic and incapable of coping.

Much to their credit, the group intuitively learned never to playfully bear-hug me from behind or leave me stranded in unfamiliar spaces. They kept me close in noisy venues, looked out for me at parties and allocated more time and consideration when teaching me choreography. They were sensitive to the fact that, though I was typically affectionate and hands-on, there were exceptions. Abrupt contact sometimes alarmed me. Occasionally, and seemingly without reason, I shied away from their touches. Jostling crowds and small, cramped spaces made me nervous. I tended to panic when people I didn’t know invaded my space, something which, as a blind person who looked more like a young teenager than a college student, happened often.

By sophomore year, my a cappella compatriots and I, particularly our senior director, Andrea, had all become good friends. I began to feel at ease in my skin again, knowing that my well-being mattered to them.

Still, every so often, an unexpected trigger knocked me back a step.

The girls voted on a sundress for a cappella competition: skimpy, low-cut, spaghetti-strapped. For the past year, I’d managed to avoid wearing clothes that were even slightly revealing. Blindness had a disconcerting way of making me feel as though everyone was staring at me. The thought of being onstage, wearing so little and feeling so much, was terrifying. But I couldn’t voice my fears.

During dress rehearsal, several of the girls, doubtless picking up on my anxiety, loudly complimented my figure and whispered that the boys were ogling. Their well-meaning intervention only exacerbated my discomfort. By the end of the night, I was miserably overwhelmed.


As my fellow singers left in a spirited group, Andrea held me back. “This dress is really bothering you, isn’t it?” Draping her well-worn hoodie around my shoulders, she took my hand to guide me. “Let’s see what we can do.”

At her apartment, Andrea dished up a plate of chicken and pasta for me before sitting down with my dress and her sewing kit. She adjusted the spaghetti straps so the dress would sit higher, then closed the gap in front. Knowing that Andrea acknowledged my struggle and cared enough to remedy it comforted me as much as the altered dress.

While Andrea set out a tub of ice cream to thaw, I changed into one of her button-up flannel shirts and a pair of her sweats. Though I hadn’t planned to, I found myself confiding in her about what had happened freshman year, why I sometimes flinched and froze and acted out-of-sorts and how certain things, like the dress and the girls’ teasing comments, could bring everything back.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Her tone was concerned, not at all accusatory.

“You hardly knew me when it happened. I was still the little blind freshman. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.”

“It’s not like that. I’m just mad, as your friend, that something bad and unfair happened to you.”

We were lying on her bed, side by side on our stomachs, not touching. Maybe she knew that, if she held me, her tenderness and compassion would almost certainly make me cry.

“I want to punch him in the mouth,” Andrea seethed.

I laughed. “You can’t protect me forever.”

unnamed-15 “I want to, though.” There was no humor in her reply, only sincerity. She did touch me then, her hand running gently up and down my back. “None of us would ever let anyone hurt you. We’d kill them first.”

I nodded. I’d clung to that truth for over a year, leaning into its safety whenever I felt afraid or alone. Nonetheless, Andrea’s reassurance filled me with a deeper sense of security. She and the others would look out for me when I felt unable to look out for myself, and over time they would prove, though touch had hurt me, it could also help me heal.

Grateful, I turned onto my side and reached out. Andrea drew me in close, and we both held on.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: Share with us the moment, if you’ve had it, where you knew everything was going to be OK. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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18 Secrets to Having a Strong Marriage While Parenting a Child With Special Needs


All marriages take work and commitment, especially when you throw kids into the mix. But if you and your spouse are parents to a child with special needs, maintaining a happy, healthy marriage can be more complicated.

The Mighty wanted to find out how couples balance their marriages with raising children with special needs, so we decided to reach out to the people who do it every day. We asked our readers to share their secrets to maintaining a strong marriage while parenting a child with special needs.

Here’s what we learned:

1. “Respect each other’s way of processing obstacles and challenges.” — Sue Rutan Donald

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2. “The moment you lie down in bed is the moment you stop discussing therapies, night terrors and feeding issues. Allow your bedroom to be your partner’s and your space. Focus on you and your partner physically, emotionally and mentally.” — Amber Watrouse

3. “Communication. Make time for each other.” — Monica Ronghi Donnelly

4. “Humor, humor and more humor… with a side of bacon every now and then!” — Susan Crowe Brown

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5. “Never blame one another. Realize you are walking the same path at the same time, so you may as well hold hands along the way.” — Kate Sytsma

6. “Date your spouse. Find the time to get put of the house for even a walk or a quick dinner. Talk often. Good, bad and indifferent communication opens doors that helps your marriage.” — Kerri Kane

7. “You just have to be your partner’s partner. When it’s time for him or her to break down a little bit… well, you just get stronger for them. They’ll do the same for you, when it’s your turn.” — Steve Johnson

8. “When things get stressful, just take a step back and soak in the sight of your spouse loving and adoring your child. In the end, that’s all that matters.” — Sherri Stock Baumgart

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9. “Don’t sweat the small stuff. For real!” — Kimberley Butler Wise

10. “We accept that we both make mistakes and we’re both new to this.” — Leidy Jesse Garcia

11. “Recognize and accept each other’s weaknesses.” — Danielle Milner

12. “There is no one thing. It’s a delicate dance of clear communication, patience, a sense of humor, deep breaths and a lot of love.” — Lauren Swick Jordan

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13. “Laughter… lots and lots of laughter.” — Ali Schmeder-Cummins

14. “A solid babysitter. And therapy.” — Julia Miller Trecanao

15. “Make time for yourselves. Individually and as a couple.” — Jovi Escobedo

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16. “Put each other first.” — Carole Beshears

17. “Respect each other.” — Jennifer Rosenbusch

18. “Being on the same page would be magic. Being in the same book is a must.” — Carla Campbell Coulter

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*Some responses have been shortened and edited.

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The Supportive Groups I Turn to as a Special Needs Mom


Before having my first child, I never knew the depth of love I would have for my son. It was quite unexpected. It’s was like having a part of me living outside my body. What happens to him, happens to me.

When you add to the fact that he is a special needs child, I turned into a momma bear protecting her baby cub. We wouldn’t even go to the park for fear of what might happen. After all, we had a ventilator and emergency equipment to contend with to justify my fear of the unknown.

Special needs moms share the same concerns all moms have, but the concerns are significantly heightened when you have a medically fragile child. I wasn’t given a handbook on how to deal with these emotions. I knew that a medical textbook stated my child had a “not compatible with life” diagnosis. With that knowledge, our child came home at 6 months old.

I knew of no one else on my journey. There was no one I could ask. No hanging out with the moms in the park comparing notes and asking for advice. Instead, I had a team of nurses and a doctor for almost every body part. But how to handle my emotions? That I would learn on my own.

One day, my son had a significant life threatening event and had to be taken to the hospital where they stabilized him. After a few short hours, we were able to take him home. We had a happy ending that day, but my emotions I felt didn’t let me forget.

And so, when I see a sniffle or hear a cough, my emotions go into hyper overdrive. I hold my breath and think of the worst case scenario. What if he’s getting a cold? What if we need to put him on the ventilator? What if we have to go to the doctor? How can we avoid him from catching something there?

Before allowing my emotions to get completely out of control, I try to remember to breathe then implement a quick prayer, even if only a few words long. And finally, watch my son’s symptoms to see if they progress. Many times, what I’m worried about doesn’t happen. The sniffle is a spring allergy or the runny nose is short lived.

Will these intense emotions lessen over the course of time? Probably not. We are mothers, after all. Can I learn to rest in prayer and past experience to help me overcome? Yes. And now with the age of Facebook, I’m no longer alone on this emotional journey. There are many groups where I can share my experiences or ask a question and receive amazing advice.

Here a few of the groups I frequent:

Relating to dwarfism:


Distrofia Tanatoforica Grupo de Apoyo

Dwarfism Awareness 


Dwarf News 

Little People From Around the World 

LPA Central Star Chapter – Kansas City 

Parents of Little People of America 

POLP on Facebook  

Thanatophoric Dysplasia Pregnancy & Survivors Group 

Related to special needs:

Families of Children with Tracheotomy’s 

Florida Mommies of Miracles Chapter 

Kids With Vents 

Mommies of Miracles Discussion Group 

Special Needs Prayer Network 


So, in the end, we are not alone in our journeys. What groups do you frequent? Where do you find inspiration? How do you handle your hyper emotions of being a special needs mom? I’d love to hear your ideas. Who knows, maybe they’ll appear in a future blog.

A version of this post originally appeared on A Miracle in My Living Room.

The Mighty wants to hear more about relationships and special needs parenting. Can you share a moment on your special needs journey that strengthened your relationship? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio.

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