We are often told that one of the hallmark traits of people on the spectrum is that they appear to lack empathy—the ability to put themselves emotionally in someone else’s shoes. Indeed, if you’d asked me years ago if my son, David, showed any signs of being empathetic, my knee-jerk reaction would have been to spell out the list of ways in which he demonstrably lacked this trait. I would tell you how he crushed the feelings of our 8-year-old neighbor, Kyle, after Kyle asked him why he no longer wanted to play one afternoon. “You are very nice,” my then 9-year-old son informed him in his very pleasant, matter-of-fact voice. “It’s just that you are a very boring person.” Kyle—devastation evident on his tear-streaked face—silently turned away and hightailed it home. My son went back inside the house, oblivious that he’d caused any harm. That was the end of that friendship, and I could relate plenty more stories along those lines—all involving what I would describe as “one-on-one” situations.
At a group level, however, it was a different matter. David did (and still does) demonstrate a remarkable sense of empathy regarding broader, societal situations. From a young age, if he saw injustices against any population group, he would take their side quickly and passionately. He could enumerate countless facts, statistics, case studies, news stories, and the like—he had clearly done his homework—and he would vehemently defend those whom he believed were being mistreated. Indeed, you could hear the passion in his voice from the moment the topic arose. From what I understand, this sense of broad-level, social or societal-type empathy is not uncommon amongst people on the spectrum.
But one-on-one situations were an entirely different matter. Until David was 16, I don’t recall seeing any manifestations of empathy when dealing with the people in his direct environment. We had lots of “Kyle moments” in which he unintentionally upset someone. We also had plenty of times when someone said or did something that hurt his feelings. Time and again, however, I saw no evidence that David was capable of stepping into someone else’s shoes. I wondered if he would ever be able to do this, and until his sophomore year in high school, I had given up hope and surmised that the answer was “no.”
Then came “THE Day”—a day forever etched in my memory. My son had been suspended temporarily from school for attacking a classmate—something he had never done before. School officials were aware he was on the spectrum, but he shut down and couldn’t communicate his side of the story after the distressing incident. Everyone presumed he was guilty. Two days later, I finally heard David’s version of things, and it turned out the boy in question had been provoking him throughout the entire semester—jabbing him in the back with pencils, shaking a water bottle at his ear, and more. But instead of focusing on the harassment he had endured, he presented the situation in a different light. He explained to me that his classmate had ADD. David believed he was very bored in class and couldn’t control himself. “It’s not that he doesn’t like me,” David said. “It’s just that I have the misfortune of sitting in front of him, so I’m the logical target.” My jaw dropped. I was the one who was angry, while my son was stepping into his classmate’s shoes and explaining his behavior. That moment became one of the biggest silver linings of my lifetime. I learned that my son was indeed capable of empathizing with those around him.
Since that time, I’ve come to realize that David, now 24, can be a very empathetic person. In “typical neurotypical” fashion, I had expected my son to show empathy according to my definition of how I thought people should act, rather than recognizing he might demonstrate empathy in his own unique way. And now, I sometimes worry that his empathy may enable other people to take advantage of him. Last year, for instance, he gave a substantial amount of his money to a “friend of a friend” who was supposedly in dire circumstances. David’s friend was a classmate from boarding school, but I knew nothing about the friend of his friend. My son projected the same level of trust onto that person as he did onto his friend, even though he had never met the young man. I hope David was responding to a legitimate need, but I’ll never know, and that worries me. Will he become an easy target for criminals and scams? Clearly, that is something we will need to focus on as he navigates early adulthood.
As I’ve come to discover, people on the spectrum can be, and indeed often are, quite empathetic. Others perceive them as lacking empathy because they don’t show facial expressions or use a tone of voice that neurotypicals would consider appropriate to a situation. But they can indeed feel empathy, and strongly. Perhaps the real problem, as I’ve read, isn’t with those on the spectrum. It’s with neurotypical individuals—specifically, with those who fail to show empathy for those on the spectrum. If they just had a little empathy, they’d realize that not everyone demonstrates empathy in the same way.
The author is the mom of a 24-year-old son with an Asperger’s profile. Her son was diagnosed at the age of 9.
See other content on the topic of empathy:
Autism and Empathy: Reflections from Adults on the Spectrum