Autism, Empathy, and Practicality

I have previously written about the issue of whether or not people with autism have empathy or not. My son’s reactions to two episodes suggest that the claim people with autism do not have empathy is in fact quite wrong.

Our babysitter for our two youngest once hurt her leg mowing her grass. The lawn mower threw out a brick, and cut and bruised her pretty badly. Daniel’s response was, “I’m going to grow up and become a doctor so I can fix your leg.”

What this suggests to me is not a lack of empathy, but a focus on solving the problem. Rather than giving a “there-there” response that may make one feel better emotionally, he gave a (to a 4 yr old at the time) practical solution to fix the problem. Is that a lack of empathy or evidence of it?

Another time our youngest, Dylan, hurt himself shoving a q-tip into his ear. He was bleeding and we took him to the emergency room to make sure he was okay. Anna and I were in other rooms when it happened, and only Daniel saw what Dylan had done. So when the doctor asked what happened, Daniel stepped up and started trying to explain what happened. Understand that Daniel was 4 at the time and in a strange place for the first time, talking to a strange person — but he was more concerned about making sure the doctor knew what happened than he was with being in a new situation with a new person. More, he went up to Dylan while he was crying and patted him on the leg. Again, Daniel focused on the practical, but in this case he also tried to comfort Dylan.

As for me, I stayed calm as I first cleaned Dylan’s ear to try to look at it, then took him to the emergency room. Was the fact that I was calm an indication that I did not have empathy? It might to some people. Am I being unempathetic when I focus on the practical and try to figure out ways to actually solve the problem at hand rather than say or do something that sounds nice but doesn’t actually help anyone or, worse, panic? I don’t think so.

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