My Autistic Son Showed Me Empathy Like No Other
I thought I was being quiet as the tears began to fall. It had been six weeks since my lifelong friend of 42 years had passed away after a long, hard ass fight with breast cancer.
The room was dark with the exception of the light coming from the video I was watching on my phone. It was a video comprised of photos and music I had made for my friends, filled with memories and love representing over four decades of friendship. When the tears began to fall, I tried my best to silence the sobs as my husband was sleeping and snoring next to me. But as more photos of the past popped up on my screen and the love, joy, friendship, memories, and grief overtook me, I guess my sobs weren’t so quiet.
I had my AirPods in and the glow of the phone made it difficult to hear or see anything in the room other than the smiling faces on my screen, so I felt his presence before I saw or heard him. I looked up and there he was, my perfect boy who had heard my heartache from his bedroom and had come to investigate. He took one look at my screen and saw the photos of my lifelong best friend, whose loss still feels so raw and unimaginable to me, and he knew.
Without uttering a word, he crawled next to me and wrapped his arms around me. This unexpected, unsolicited solace caused the tears to become bigger, the sobs louder so his hold on me became stronger, tighter almost like he was keeping me from falling apart — and quite honestly, he was. He removed his glasses in order to eliminate any barrier between us, and pulled me closer so I could bury my face and tears against his shoulder and he could rest his head on mine, wrapping his arms around me and providing me with the deep pressure his body has always craved in times of emotional distress as he tried to soothe my tears.
“I just miss her so much,” I said between my hiccupy sobs. My almost 21-year-old autistic son’s only response was to squeeze me tighter. And all I could hear in my head was my friend’s voice saying, “Told you he’d be amazing,” which she had uttered many, many times over the years following his autism diagnosis 17 years ago while listening to me worry about his future. Damn, she loved to be right.
We stayed like that for several minutes, the only sound was my sniffling sobs and the occasional snore from both my husband and my dog who were completely oblivious to the scene unfolding right next to them as my boy, who I had always held up, was now literally holding me up and even allowing my tears to soak his face and shirt. I thanked him for coming to check on me and told him how much I love him and how much his love has helped me through these past several weeks. Still, not a word, just comfort, compassion, love and squeezing.
We so often want to ease someone’s pain or discomfort with reassuring words and trite remarks, but there were no words, no platitudes, that would have soothed my heartache in that moment — thus none were spoken. It was truly one of the most extraordinary moments of sympathy and connection I have ever experienced from anyone.
The stereotype that autistic individuals are unable to “feel for others” (sympathy) or “feel along with others” (empathy) continues to be perpetuated by those who don’t look past what they believe sympathy/empathy should look and sound like. There is no greater example of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” than providing a person with the exact “shoe” that fits and feels best for you believing they too will find comfort in a similar shoe which is exactly what my son did. His big, giant squeeze was his “shoe” and it fits me perfectly.
After he wiped my tears from his face and retrieved his glasses, I watched his shadowy figure disappear across the hall and heard the click of his bedroom door as he returned to his own room. I lay there on my tear-soaked pillow and I couldn’t help but marvel at how fortunate I am to be loved by such a remarkable human being.
With my heart still aching, and my husband and dog still happily snoring away, the tears began to subside and I felt a calmness that hadn’t been there before and I could feel the beginning of a smile creep upon my face. My girlfriend was right, (and oh how she loved to be right) my son is indeed “amazing.” The smile then became a chuckle, because damn if she isn’t still getting the last word.