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When I Struggle With Cognitive Empathy as Someone on the Autism Spectrum


This is a very hard article for me to write, but I think it might help others in the same situation as me. Until my diagnosis as autistic, I was so scared I would be seen as something evil if anyone ever found out I have this “deficit”; you see, I have a problem with cognitive empathy, what is also known as theory of mind. I have a problem putting myself in other people’s “shoes.”

Let me say unilaterally and profoundly — not only to help myself, but to help those reading this with the same problem I have — having a deficit in cognitive empathy is not something you should be angry at yourself over, scared of, hate yourself for, or that makes you a bad person.

My cousin unexpectedly passed away a few weeks ago. I was not close to her, but I was very close to her older sister. Her sister came over to tell me in person and started crying, and I wrapped my arms around her. This may sound bad, but for me, due to my deficit causing more problems than normal, my brain defaulted to the social script/rule. Now let me mention, this problem happens less frequently now than in the past, because for one, I have enough experience to be able to match up automatically what others are experiencing and what I have experienced in my life, and two, I generally don’t put myself in situations where much if any cognitive empathy is required. However, when my cousin came over, I ran into the problem again: I could not put myself in her “shoes,” and I needed to.

This is a type of empathy that some of us on the spectrum can have problems with. Many of us can empathize with your emotions; in fact, some of us can do it too well, feel your emotions too much. I have a strong empathetic reaction to people displaying a strong emotion, or characters in movies. However, the type of empathy I am talking about, cognitive empathy, where we can see something from others’ perspectives is where a few of us can have a problem. There is a difference between the two, although many people might not realize that, and this may be why some people say those on the spectrum have no empathy.

I don’t do that well at understanding nonverbal communications anyways; throw in the issue with cognitive empathy, and all I can understand is she is crying and the emotions that typically go along with it, which gives me 20 percent of the information I needed to understand what was going on. Normally, this would not have caused an issue; normally, I don’t have reasons to put myself in someone’s “shoes.” But here, I felt I must to be able to best help her. I have lost both my parents, but that is different; I have lost grandparents, but that is different. I had no scripts, social rules or experiences that would allow me to be able to see this from her perspective, which made me very distressed and confused.

In situations like this, not only is the other person having problems, but for those of us with deficits in cognitive empathy, it can also be a scary and extremely confusing situation. Oftentimes, we may know we should be able to see it from their perspective, but we can’t. I know she must have a perspective, and if I could see it I might be able to better understand what to do to help her and how to react. Instead, all I had was a confusing blank inside of her, a flashing cursor. After my cousin left, it took me a little while to stop hating myself, to stop deriding myself as a horrible person for not having a “normal” ability, to stop being angry at myself for not being able to understand her. In situations of deficits, I’ve found many people direct large amounts of self-hate at themselves where a deficit is seen as interfering, especially with something important. But I am starting to realize and accept that having problems with cognitive empathy is OK. I am not perfect; neither is anyone on this planet. If we have a problem putting ourselves in someone’s “shoes” we do, and we should not beat ourselves up over it. We all have strengths that may give us unique abilities and insights, but we also have deficits, and those deficits are not the whole of our definition. We can work to lessen their impact on our lives by developing good coping skills and accepting the deficits.

A benefit to getting older is I have built up a library of scripts. It is how I survive, pass, function. I also have coping skills I have developed over years, like avoiding situations where something I have a deficit in is required or likely to happen. However, no matter how hard we may try, how many scripts we may have, how many rules may be in place, and how many experiences we can reference, there can still be times when we will have to say or do something despite our deficits that we are not ready for.

I was lucky; I think I did OK, just holding, listening and supporting her, basically, just being there for her.

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The Day I Found Out Nothing Was ‘Wrong’ With Me


For most of my life, I’ve thought something must be “wrong” with me. I was fortunate enough to be formally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder about a year ago. It’s something that was talked about when I was a child, and that I’d considered as an adult, but a formal diagnosis seemed to snap everything in to place. The puzzle was solved. I even celebrated.

Nothing was or is “wrong” with me. I’m simply a less common neurotype. Awesome. I started to make new autistic friends, relate to others more easily, make my own sensory toys, and more. I couldn’t thank my therapy team enough for finally solving this mystery. I can only laugh now, thinking about all the things I thought might have been wrong with me. Not that any of them were truly funny.

Some people may consider an autism diagnosis a bad thing. If that is you or a loved one, I encourage you to seek the positives about being autistic and try to make new friends, even if only online. It has had a huge impact on my self-esteem. My therapist reminds me of how much it’s increasing. Speaking of therapists, I also recommend you find a brilliant one. I’ve seen many and finally found the one for me. And I don’t have to pay top dollar to see him — he’s at my local mental health clinic. I see autism as something to learn to accept if you don’t, and hopefully learn to be proud about! Good luck to you!

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A Promise to My Son on the Autism Spectrum


To my beautiful son,

I need to explain to you why there might be times you think, feel, see and hear differently than others. You see, son, you have something called autism. Sometimes this might affect your experience of certain places, textures, foods, lights, sounds and clothing. At times these things may be very overwhelming for you. Your senses are stronger than most, so lights are brighter, sounds are louder, and you feel things stronger.

Because you think and see things differently, it gives you amazing qualities. You are advanced in math and music, and you have been able to read since early preschool. You can understand how mechanical equipment works, and you understand computers better than I do.

Autism might bring challenges at times, but know that if there are difficult times, Mama is right here — I’ll help you. And during good times, I will be right here cheering you on. Together we’ll celebrate all of your successes. Together we’ll find coping techniques for you when you need them.

Son, I want you to know that autism doesn’t define you as a person to me. You have autism and it may only be a small part of you, but it’s a part of you I want you to learn, understand, accept and embrace. I will do everything in my power to help you succeed. I promise never to underestimate your abilities and never to stop fighting to ensure you have everything you need to succeed. I promise to be there for you every time you need me to be, and I promise to stand by on the sidelines cheering you on when you need to do it all on your own.

I promise, above all else, to always love you unconditionally. Please know that you are loved, you are wonderful, you are beautiful, you are smart, you are special, you are talented, you are brilliant, you shine, and you are my world. I cannot possibly list all the amazing qualities you possess because the list is never-ending. You are doing amazing, you are amazing, and you will always be amazing. I just love you.

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10 Things I Wish I Knew Right After My Child's Autism Diagnosis


Receiving an autism diagnosis for your child can be life-changing. Even if you already think your child might be on the autism spectrum, actually hearing a qualified medical professional say those words might make everything move in slow motion for a second or two. In my experience, the words reverberated around inside my head. Autism. Autistic. My child is autistic.

And then the questions begin. Only by then, there’s no one to ask. We were given a few leaflets and websites and sent on our merry way, blinking into the rising sun of the dawn of our new lives. We had questions about how this would affect her schooling, how it might hinder her speech development (already delayed, but offered no extra help with it), and who could we speak to if we had any more questions. We never really got the answers to these.

But, the answers I really wanted to know were more personal. How will it affect her future? Will it change us as a family? How will we cope? We’re only around 20 months into our post-diagnosis journey, but if I’d have known then what I know now, it might have just seemed a little less daunting. Here is a list of things I wish I’d known right back at the start…

1. It will be OK! I would have loved someone to tell me this in those first few minutes. I probably wouldn’t have believed them at that moment, but to know that it had been said and to be able to pluck it from my memory when needed would have been useful. It can take time to come to terms with a new diagnosis, but, for all the ups and downs that might happen, it will be OK. It’s nothing to be scared of. When you stop to think about it, it’s words on a piece of paper. Use those words to make you stronger. Use those words to get the things your child needs. Be empowered.

2. Making decisions might get harder. I’ve always been useless at making decisions; I’m a real fence-sitter. I am always trying to second-guess myself and others, and I’m not good at trusting my gut instinct. Now I have a child with additional needs, I find making important decisions even harder. Choosing the right school? It’s not just about inspection reports and a “nice atmosphere” like when we were looking for our son. Now we have to consider facilities, therapies, suitability to meet her needs, what support they can offer… the list is extensive. Decisions made for a child with special needs are often big ones and can be hard to change if it doesn’t feel right. Lists of pros and cons have become my friends!

3. The diagnosis is not a magic key. People often say that having a diagnosis is the key to getting support and services for your child. Yes, having those words written on official-looking documentation means that there are more options open to you, but you might still have to fight to get these at times. Diagnoses are increasing, but funding isn’t necessarily increasing. Service providers are limited in exactly what they can give, and several families will be fighting for attention. Waiting times are long, appointments scarce, therapies lacking. You will need to shout, and shout loud.

4. I’ve learned more about me. I used to think parents of kids with special needs were superheroes. And they are. But, guess what? They’re just parents, doing what parents are meant to do. They take care of their kids. They do everything parents of “typical” kids do, albeit in a different way, more often than not. Feeding might be through a tube rather than on a plate; potty training might come a few years later than the “norm”; the sleepless nights may well continue well past the baby stage (and may never end!); schooling may be at home; socializing might be in special group settings… Some children need constant care, 24/7 and their parents just get on with it, because, well, what else can they do? And I have learned that I can do this. Even in the times when it feels as though I can’t, I can! I have amazed myself with my resilience at times. I am growing a thicker skin and a louder voice, because we have to make ourselves heard.

5. How fiercely protective I am. I always have been and always will be protective of my kids. But now I am a Mama Bear. Mess with my kids, you mess with me. ‘Nuff said.

6. My daughter will still grow and change. Yes, some things might be delayed, or maybe not happen at all, but she will carry on growing and developing, just as other children will. Her personality will develop, and I believe she will continue developing a great sense of humor and continue being loving, affectionate, and at times demanding. Because guess what? She’s a kid!

7. I wish I had known just how loved she would be, not just by our own family, but by others — teachers, friends, other children. One of my first thoughts was that she might never make friends and, while it seems to me like she might not understand the concept of friendship yet, I just know that eventually, she’ll be just fine.

8. I’ll find new friends. Before diagnosis, you might know one or two other people who have a child on the spectrum. But once you start looking, there’s a whole other world of people in the same boat out there. I find being sociable quite tricky, but I’ve forced myself to get out and go to some support groups. I’ve found new friends online — and, even though I might never meet them in “real life,” I do consider them friends. I can talk to them about things I can’t with my “real life” friends, because they just get it. I’ve even grown some sort of community of my own through my blog and Facebook page. Other parents ask me for advice! You might need to look for them, but they’re out there — your tribe.

9. She will always amaze me. I often find myself sitting and watching her, playing, singing, sleeping, and I wonder to myself how we created this amazing little being. Yes, her brain is wired a bit differently, but how cool is that? The world needs people who think differently, who are different. No matter what, she will always be amazing to me.

10. It’s what makes her, her. I get that some people wish there was a “cure” for autism. I get that life can be tough, and that as parents, we don’t want our children to experience difficulties. But, for me, to take away the autism would be to take away my child. For me, autism isn’t something she has, it’s something she is. It’s a part of her. She’s living in a world that isn’t geared towards her; it’s not her that’s wrong! If she was “cured” of her autism, she wouldn’t be her. I love her just as she is.

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10 Things I Wish I Knew Right After My Child's Autism Diagnosis
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The Challenges I Face With Sensory Issues as an Autistic Person


As an Autistic person, I can find it challenging to function in the world. I have sensory issues in all five senses, and noise is the most challenging for me to deal with. When I was younger, I would jump at loud sounds such as air brakes on buses, and I absolutely hated automatic hand dryers. My sensory issues have improved as I have grown older. I have learned to tolerate some sounds, but some sounds still bother me.

The wailing of a siren passing by the building I do an activity in can make me feel overloaded, so I cover my ears. I don’t like sirens at all; whether I’m in a car or in a building, I will hear the ambulance or firetruck coming and cover my ears in anticipation. I also really hate smoke alarms. I will not be the one waving a pillow back and forth under the smoke alarm because a piece of toast got burned in the toaster.

I am a selective eater. There are only certain foods (and certain brands of foods) I will eat. For instance, once a food brand was changed and I didn’t like it at first; I wanted the old brand back. Slowly, I adjusted to eating the new brand of food and I ended up liking it more than the old brand. I also am affected by the sense of smell. Mashed potatoes and oatmeal stinks to me. I do not like the smell of them. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by visual things. Bright lights bother me. Stage lights are nearly impossible to ignore, and camera flashes can cause me to go into sensory overload. Flashing lights also bother me, too.

To cope with my sensory issues, I have found that taking breaks and using earplugs and stim toys help me. I take multiple short breaks, which keeps me from getting overwhelmed by sound. I also use my earplugs, which reduce sound enough to where it does not bother me as much. The stim toys help me by providing a calming sensory input and helps with my fidgeting body.

Sensory issues are real, and I struggle with them, but I’m learning to accept my sensory issues as just a way of hearing, tasting, smelling and feeling the world differently.

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Talking to Family Friends About Our Son’s Autism Diagnosis


When my son Edward was first diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. I had suspected he was on the spectrum on and off for quite a number of years. When we got home from the meeting with the psychologist, we contacted both sets of our parents and let them know. Then we had to work out who else to tell and in which order. Edward was 8 years old at the time, and it seemed only appropriate that seeing as he was old enough to understand, he should know about his diagnosis before anyone else. So we sat him down and told him.

His dad Nick and I both agreed that school staff needed to know. After that it became more tricky as we wanted to tell our friends but were aware that if we did so, some of them would inevitably mention it to their own children, and we wanted Edward to be settled with his diagnosis before he had other children asking him about it. Nick also needed a bit more time to get his head around it first. In the end, once we’d had a bit more time to digest the information as a family, we did start to tell our friends. One family must have talked about it in front of their own children, because one day, our daughter Leila came home from school reporting that one of our friend’s kids had asked, “Has Edward got autism?” We were just glad that we had sat our own kids down and explained autism to them first, because I wouldn’t have wanted any of my kids hearing about Edward’s autism as if it was something scary and frightening. Edward didn’t want his primary school class to be told about his diagnosis, although this was something offered to him by support staff.

Towards the end of primary school, Edward was open to letting family friends know about his diagnosis. We found a useful book for us called “Can I tell you about Asperger Syndrome?” by Jude Welton, a short read that can be read by children and time-pressed adults alike. Quite a few family friends read the book, and I think it gave them more understanding and patience towards Edward.

Once Edward reached high school, it seemed to me like a real shift had occurred in terms of how he viewed his autism diagnosis. He wrote this when he was 13 years old:

“I have a condition called Autism. It affects my behaviour, and makes me less social but more focused. Most people see autism as problem but I see it as a feature of personality. If there was a cure I would not take it…. because I would die and be replaced by another person inhabiting my body. It would not be me, but a less interesting version of me without my best and worst features.”

If you are telling people about your child’s autism, I think it is important to talk about their strengths as well as challenges. I recommend letting people know what things help them stay calm, what things they enjoy and what motivates them. Taking this approach can be a more positive way of explaining who your child is and what they might need.

I want Edward to know he has autism. I want other people to know and understand what this means, and I don’t want my son to feel like he has to hide. Our kids will become adults sooner than we can imagine, and a world where autism is less stigmatized will be a better place for them to flourish.

Edward wouldn’t be the interesting character we know and love if he wasn’t autistic. It seems to me like he has buckets more self-awareness, reflection and perseverance than I had at his age, and I believe the challenges he has faced might have helped with this. I hope this will stand him in good stead for the coming years.

Follow this journey on A Blog About Raising My Autistic Son.

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