Friday, June 10, 2011

Autism and Empathy

We've been noticing something recently. Rachel really loves her brothers, Simon in particular. She has always been sensitive to his feelings and they have always demonstrated what I call a "twin bond" -- they only have to glance at each other and they seem to have a full detailed conversation. We have never been able to scold Simon in front of her, not because of the noise, but because it meant her brother was in trouble. I had thought that part of that was the unexpected nature of this (Simon getting scolded is outside of her control), but for the last few weeks, we're starting to see that may not be the case, at least not in full.

A new favorite television show is "Super Why". We watch it on PBS Kids' Sprout as well as on our local public television station. She seems to be obsessed with the episode focusing on "Jack and the Beanstalk" because the "problem" they are trying to solve is resolving the main character's little sister's temper tantrum. "Joy" is crying. Screaming. She's having a "HUMONGOUS tantrum". Rachel has been walking around asking, "What's the matter, Joy?" or suggesting offering a bottle to Joy to make her feel better. I've also been receiving notes from her teacher explaining that she has been more emotional in school lately when another student is upset. She also gets upset. She tries to cry, and is often successful.

I know this may seem strange to say, but I don't think of this as a negative development. I think this is evidence that she is trying to determine how to express "Empathy". defines empathy as "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another." I was always concerned that because of her autism diagnosis whether she would ever fully be able to express or experience empathy. But she is proving me wrong lately.

I created and administer a Facebook page (We Care About Someone With Autism). Yesterday, I chose to have a day long topic discussion about autism and empathy. The theory that an individual with autism cannot experience empathy was one of the first myths that I was exposed to when we first began our journey into the autism world. We are obviously seeing that is not the case, at least in Rachel. I was wondering what others had to say on the subject. I was pleasantly surprised to see and learn that others often see the same behaviors. The biggest difference is that these children often need to learn how to express it effectively, as this skill is one that is often lacking. I have been addressing this issue by telling Rachel to ask the "sad" person, "Why are you so sad?" I've only been doing this for a few days so it's too soon to see if this will help to resolve the problem that we are currently experiencing. But I wouldn't really call it a problem -- I'd just call it a development.

But Rachel will always feel something special for her twin brother!


  1. That is such a sweet picture. Our son often considers and shows love for his twin sister. Also, with my little girl, her ability to empathize seems to be growing as her imaginative play skills are growing. I hope you see the same effect as well!

  2. I love watching that relationship grow. It really is magical to see and autism may have altered it slightly, but it's still there!

  3. I love this piece!

    I've recently started a website called "Autism and Empathy" (, and I'd love to repost your story. Would you give me permission to do so? If so, please drop me an email at