Empathy round 1

When we were working through the diagnosis process for Jake, there were many, many questionnaires.  I understand that they are useful and important, that they are a quickly assessed way to gather a great deal of quantitative information about situations that are often emotional and complicated.

But, Heaven help me, they are so hard.  Facing page after page of rating your child, your family, your life, your reality is excruciating.

One of the things the questionnaires attempt to tease out is the question of empathy.

Empathy.  Only one of the most complicated of human experiences.

Empathy.  The ability to put oneself in the shoes of another, to imagine an experience from someone else’s point of view.

How on earth do you find out if a child, a child under age five, experiences empathy?  How can they tell you?  They cannot.  Add on to that social problems, sensory issues, and a completely misunderstood brain function.  Now try to find out if that child experiences empathy.  Right.

I know amazing teachers who work on developing empathy.  I know wonderful parents who try to model empathy.  I know of programs where empathy is supposedly taught directly.

I know that Jake struggles with empathy.  I just don’t know why.

He has always shown little concern for other children when they are hurt.  However, this is our observation at home, where the ‘other children’ have been his brother or his cousins.  They pick on each other.  They are kids, boys.  They push each other, wrestle, steal each other’s toys.  Inevitably, someone ends up hurt and crying.  Jake usually responds by walking quietly away from the crier.  We have asked him, oh, so many times, “Look at Aiden!  Does he look happy?  Does he look hurt?”

We didn’t know.  We didn’t know that processing facial and emotional cues was hard for Jake.

Does that mean he isn’t empathetic?

Now that he is a little older, all kinds of interesting things are happening.  He has expressed great concern about making sure that all of the kids in the class have the right supplies.  He has been anxious because some of the girls in his class haven’t had the chance to be first in line after lunch.  Anxious!

This week, we have all been sick.  My husband was sniffling as he played Lego with Jake on Saturday.  Jake asked him if he was hurt.  No.  Sniffling continued.  Jake again asked him if he was alright.  Dad finally clued in: Jake thought he was crying!  So they talked about Dad being sick and Jake was relieved.  Lego continued.

That all sounds a great deal like empathy to me.

So I did like I do, and went researching.  I found this:

What I saw in these [autistic] students instead was hypersensitivity – painful hypersensitivity that caused them to be persistently confused and disoriented about their surroundings and the people around them. It wasn’t that they didn’t care or weren’t empathic; not at all. It was that life was too loud and too intense, full of static and confusion (this idea would soon be called the Intense World theory of autism, see Markram, Rinaldi, & Markram, 2007).


I’ve written about the Intense World theory here.  You should read that too.  It’s all so amazing.  And this finally makes more sense.  I read what some other autistics said about their feelings related to empathy.

“If anything, I struggle with having too much empathy” one person commented. “If someone else is upset, I am upset. There were times during school when other people were misbehaving, and if the teacher scolded them, I felt like they were scolding me.”

Said another,

“I am clueless when it comes to reading subtle cues, but I am *very* empathic. I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling, and I think this is actually quite common in AS/autism. The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it.”


I have always known that Jake is more of an observer than many other kids.  He will watch a group of kids play rather than joining in.  He notices everything!  All kinds of details.  Why would we assume then that he doesn’t notice how others are feeling?

Maybe he doesn’t understand their faces.  Maybe he notices the sounds they make, like sniffling.  Maybe he notices where they stand in line.  Maybe he notices if they do not have an eraser, but everyone else does.  And if he can understand how that would feel, is that not empathy?  It just isn’t the way I learned empathy.  But I am learning.

And oh!  If it’s loud, and messy, and someone is hurt, and yelling and crying and upset, what if that is simply too much to bear, to relate to, to comprehend and know what to do?  What if when your little brother cries, you don’t know what to do?  So you walk away, a few steps, quietly.  You play with that toy that you stole, the one that made him cry.  Maybe it just takes longer to figure it all out.  Maybe you need to be able to listen?  To hear what’s going on without all the red faces and tears getting in the way?  I don’t know.  I just wonder.

Jake consistently prays for people who are sick.  He asks us about our day, what our favourite part of the day was.  He asks us what’s wrong when we are sniffling.

I say he’s got plenty of empathy.


4 thoughts on “Empathy round 1

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