Empathy, Action, and Autism

Dania Jekel, Executive Director of AANE
Blog Post

About 15 years ago, I got to know Nancy (an adult member of our community) fairly well. She was an older woman who had struggled in many ways prior to her diagnosis, and despite her nursing degree was unable to work. She was living on social security payments of $460 a month. Despite her low income and monthly struggle just to pay her own bills, through an international charity she had signed up to support a boy in Ecuador for $15 a month and a young woman in Kenya, also for $15 a month. She faithfully paid her monthly pledge and in return received letters and pictures from both children as they grew.

Time and time again, I see individuals on the spectrum show this incredible level of commitment to a cause. From helping those in poverty, to working to protect animals, or engaging in activism against climate change, I am struck by how deeply they dedicate themselves to a movement. They are not content with a casual donation or signing a petition, and moving on to other things. Their sense of personal responsibility for the cause in which they believe becomes a driving force and compels them to devote their time, energy, and resources even at great personal cost.

For too long, a myth has persisted that people with autism are self-absorbed or lack empathy. But what I see more often are individuals with incredible empathy who feel the emotions of others so deeply, they must take action and simply do not allow things they consider less important to become a barrier to their efforts.

I think there are a few reasons for this.

  • First, people on the autism spectrum seem to have an emotional sensitivity to unnecessary suffering, causing them to make a personal commit to remedy these situations–sometimes regardless of how it impacts the other areas of their life. Often this becomes their life’s passion or career as they become a catalyst for change, but sometimes it creates a focus which excludes other things in their life.
  • Second, I think that for teens and adults who have themselves felt what it is like to live as an outsider, there is more compassion for the vulnerable, including animals and nature, where there is likely to be a special bond and interest.
  • Third, many people on the spectrum are intelligent and logical, and often understand issues with a depth others may not. This understanding often leads to action.
  • Fourth, many view the world in black and white with no gray, removing justifications which others may use to avoid action.

Autism is often defined by a list of deficits. Little attention has been paid to the incredible contributions of individuals on the spectrum whose traits have enable them to help change the world and make it a better place.

I want to add a postscript: Eight years after Nancy had adopted her Ecuadorian child, I had the chance to visit Ecuador where my daughter was working. I arranged with the organization to visit the boy (now a young man) who Nancy had helped. I met Jesus in a very under-served, small village where dwellings were built on a mountain side overlooking Guayaquil. He was a healthy, studious, 14-year-old: the first in his family to attend high school and hopeful that he could one day become an engineer. It was clear Nancy’s money had made an enormous difference in the life of this child.