Empathy. It’s a part of the discussions that comes up when you have a child with autism, for better or worse. Within the autism blogger community, I find many people want to reiterate that individuals on the autism spectrum are empathetic. I read account after account about empathy, and it’s always left me feeling a bit isolated. The thing is, I’ve questioned whether or not Jack feels empathy, and I’ve felt bad about that, as though I’m less of a parent for it.
Until I read this wonderful account on empathy titled The Empathy Conundrum, written by Musings of an Aspie (and if you have even a few minutes in your day, I highly recommend reading this piece and poking around on her blog a bit...her writing just universally makes me nod in agreement). Reading it, I wanted to scream out “YES! This is my experience!” It made me feel validated. I’m not wrong for feeling like my child lacks empathy, nor is he anything less for it. Empathy doesn’t mean what we think it means.
It got me thinking about how our society has really grown to misinterpret the true meaning of empathy and how it relates to individuals who may have some deficits in this area.
First, to see where I’m coming from, we have to examine some definitions. If you look at the diagnostic criteria for Autistic Disorder as defined in the DSM-IV-TR (and as cited from the CDC's page on Autism Spectrum Disorders), one of the social criteria reads as follows:
“...lack of social and emotional reciprocity.”
Nowhere in this does it say that autistic individuals lack empathy, yet it seems to be the statement that points society towards thinking that autistics do lack empathy. In all fairness to those who say that they are empathetic and autistic, nowhere in the DSM-IV-TR does it say that they cannot be empathetic. That is a construct that we have created in our stereotype of the autistic person.
Now, let’s look at what society defines empathy to be. Empathy, as many of us imagine it, is the ability to feel bad for someone else. However, is that really what empathy is? Let’s examine the true definition of empathy, as reflected in the American Heritage Dictionary:
"Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives."
When looking at it this way, I can nod and say that I do believe my son has deficits with empathy. By this definition, empathy can be found in statements like the following:
You look like you could use a hug.
I hurt with you in your loss.
You look like you’ve had a rough day.
Those statements show someone identifying and understanding the emotional state of someone else. I feel sad and could use some affection, so you tell me that you think I could use a hug. You empathize with my feeling of sadness and can read that what I need is the shared experience of a hug. I think that I’m not alone in saying that this is something with which my child would struggle.
Does it make him scary or someone to be feared? I’d argue no. It just means that my son has a hard time understanding the emotions of others. Nothing more. Nothing less. That doesn’t make him malicious or unfeeling. It just means that his ability to understand and identify emotions is diminished.
That’s not a good or bad thing – it just is.
As parents, why is it that we want to insist that our kids do in fact feel empathy? Why is it that many within the advocacy and self-advocacy communities want to insist that autistics feel empathy? Certainly some do. As with anything else with autistics, it’s a spectrum of abilities and disabilities. Some people surely have a better ability to understand emotional states that others.
Is it because we are trying – erroneously, in my opinion – to link empathy with sympathy? With caring? With love? After all, isn’t that what we – as parents – are trying so hard to prove? That our kids feel love?
Empathy has nothing – NOTHING – to do with love or one’s ability to care. Think about it. Have you ever loved someone that you just didn’t always understand? Maybe your autistic child? Beyond that, did you ever have a “crush” on someone who seemed so outside of your type? Just because you look at your child and can’t identify how he or she is feeling doesn’t mean you love him or her any less. Have you ever loved someone unconditionally? The definition of unconditional love seems to imply that it is outside of one’s ability to understand or do or say anything. They simply love.
Do you want proof? My son loves his red Sleep Sack. He rubs it on his face. He chants a nonsensical string of jargon when he does. He then puts it to my face. I don’t get anything out of the experience of feeling his Sleep Sack on my face, so in that regard, Jack is not picking up on my emotional state. He doesn’t get that the physical act of rubbing fleece on my face isn’t as enjoyable for me as it is for him. That would indicate a deficit in empathy; however, he enjoys it, so he gives it to me, too. That would indicate to me that he CARES. He LOVES. He doesn’t show it in the same ways – i.e. affection – that other children might, because he doesn’t understand those things. What he understands is concrete – sensory experiences, stims, and the things he enjoys. Putting his Sleep Sack to my face is his way of saying, “This is nice. You have some, too.”
That, my friends, is CARING. Caring and love can – and do – exist outside of empathy. He doesn’t have to understand what I need – affection – to demonstrate that he feels something for me.
As parents, we need to lead the way in how the conversation about our children is conducted. If we don’t, who will? The next time that someone asks me about the subject of empathy, here is how I will respond:
“My son struggles to fully understand emotions – both in himself and others – but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t feel. I can say unequivocally that he feels something akin to love and caring, even if he can’t identify it as such.”
Love and empathy aren’t linked. Neither is caring, compassion, or sympathy. One doesn’t need to be able to understand in order to feel. After all, isn’t that why extreme emotions seem to bother our children at times, because they don’t understand them? Yet our kids feel. They do indeed feel, so the thought of a lack of empathy being equivalent to an unfeeling monster is wrong. We – as parents, advocates, self-advocates, and members of the greater autism community – need to be sure to drive that point home, because the cruelty I see that comes from a lack of understanding isn’t originating from autistics, but from the NT individuals who do not try or want to understand autism.
By the way, you would be missing vital insight if you didn't just go "Like" Musings of an Aspie's Facebook page, too. That's just my 2-cents.