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From Inside the Puzzle: Raising a Child with Autism Blog

Talking About Empathy

Published October 29, 2012 10:07 PM by Devon Alley
This past Sunday, the topic of my daughter's religious education class was centered around the concept of empathy. I was really interested to find out what A. thought of this topic, and I was especially curious since she seemed to be more of a participant in this class than usual. So, as we drove towards her "reward" of a McDonald's lunch, I asked her about the class.

"What exactly do you mean by empathy?" I asked her. "Did you talk about what it means?"

"Y'know, it's like, when you say 'Oh I'm SOOO sorry!' and it's fake or when you say 'I'm really sorry to hear that because I know what that feels like.'"

They apparently also did an activity with a long string that A. said she got all tangled up in, which sounds like a brilliant way to get her actively and physically engaged in the class. A. struggles with connecting with her church classmates -- perhaps because they only meet for a few hours once a week, or perhaps because she doesn't feel like she has much in common with most of them. Either way, she doesn't really enjoy going to church, and it's one of the many ways I work to push her outside of her comfort zone on a weekly basis.

At any rate, I thought it was interesting that they were discussing empathy, and so I decided to open up a debate with A. that is very prevalent on the Internet -- the idea that autistic people struggle with empathy. As I've pointed out many times, I've seen several examples where I feel A. has demonstrated an amazing amount of empathy, but I'd never directly asked her about her opinions on it before. So, I thought it would be a great opportunity to bring up the discussion.

"You know," I said, "a lot of people say that autistic people have a difficult time with empathy." 

"Really? They say that?"

"What do you think? Do you think you have a difficult time with empathy?"

A. was quiet for a few seconds. "Well, I think I have a difficult time with people who aren't my friends. Like, with my friends, there's no difficulty, but with other people, it can be hard."

I thought this was a very interesting perspective. I have definitely seen a lot of evidence that A. is especially empathetic when it comes to her friends, either in real life or online, but I've also seen a lot of evidence that she's very empathetic with people she doesn't know very well -- even people she doesn't like very much -- or complete strangers. They annoy her, and she doesn't like to spend time with them, but she's definitely willing to help whenever she can, and she shows a lot of compassion. Also, her mood is easily altered by the moods of those around her.

On the other hand, I totally believe it's a lot easier for her to have empathy for her friends than it is for her to have empathy for others. I mean, honestly -- isn't this true for everyone? Even the most empathetic people on the planet feel a little more strongly and a little more powerfully for their close friends and loved ones. 

I would have continued the conversation with her, but she was very tired of talking with me, and much more interested in playing her favorite playlists on the stereo, so I left it at that. It's interesting, because from what I have witnessed, I can't help but wonder if autistic people tend to empathize *too* vividly -- that it's difficult for them to understand the difference between something terrible happening to someone else and something terrible happening to them -- and that in order to save themselves from constantly feeling the pain of others at such a high frequency, they've learned to shut a great deal of that out. I've definitely had that impression from some autistic adults I've spoken with, anyway. Maybe it's not that autistic people struggle with having empathy for others as much as they struggle with regulating that empathy. It would definitely make sense, then, if A. tends to "lock out" people who are not her close friends and family. I imagine it must be exhausting to carry around so much empathy in your heart for everyone in the world.
posted by Devon Alley
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