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.

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