The Empathy Issue

I have worked and lived with autism and learning disability for over 30 years. In all that time, society has continued to work towards finding a solution to the problems associated with these diagnoses. We find ways to normalise the person with the label, help them change elements of their behaviour and activity to fit in with society and education. Yet still diagnoses rates continue to rise, still there is a stigma attached to the label and support services our children access.
A recent article that popped up from the telegraph commented that within ten years we won’t be able to distinguish what sets autistics apart from non autistics. We are over diagnosing the condition. The article also commented that scientists are exploring if the rigour of everyday life nowadays is contributing to autism diagnoses across the globe. Wow, we really have to prove that to accept it?!
As a professional and the sibling of someone with intellectual disability, challenging behaviour and autistic traits, I have never felt that autistic children are any different. I’ve spent years watching my brother, playing with him, engaging with him and seeing how putting pressure on him to change causes severe meltdowns.
I’m often called to work with families to help get their child talking. We still have an engrained value that verbal communication is the highest expression of intelligence. If we get a child talking, everything will be ok. It won’t. Nothing will be ok until we learn to accept the differences, not as different but as an integral part of our future needs as a society. These kids aren’t wrong, they’re perfectly imperfect just like everyone of us! How do we know that autistic people are not the “normal” ones? The more I’ve observed and immersed myself in the autistic world, the more I find myself questioning if it’s not the neuro-typicals that need therapy! What if autistic people are here for us to see our own true selves in the metaphorical mirror? My clients teach me far more about my own behaviour and ideals than I teach them how to talk. These children teach me about communication in an honest way. They respond to my true self, not the facade I put on to face the world and mask what is really happening in my psyche and emotional body. So many people who I liaise with comment on similar experiences. The teaching assistant who is having a bad week says, oh gosh, he’s really known how to push my buttons this week. The mom who is finding juggling her multiple roles more tricky then usual says, she has been so on edge this week whenever I’m home with her. I’m sure she knows I’m having it rough right now. The dad who comments, my father passed recently, he never met my dad and I wasn’t particularly close but I’ve noticed he (my son) has been clingy towards me more recently. I catch him staring at me when I’ve been contemplating my fathers death. It’s like, he knows something is up.
All of these comments from families and professionals about autistic people who supposedly can’t empathise? It doesn’t add up.
So how about reframing our understanding of autism. How about opening our mind just a centimetre and considering if what science says about autism is really true? What if, our autistic children are showing us something about us? What if their ability to empathise is far better than our own? What if they can read our true self, the one we hide to cope and fit in with the current world order? What if, when you next observe a socially inappropriate behaviour, you stop. Pause for just a minute…and ask yourself, what does this behaviour say about me right now?

These are only my musings based upon my experiences but maybe there are others who see Autism this way. I’d love to hear from you!

  • Jennifer Pritchard
    Posted at 19:23h, 29 September Reply

    I loved this- so touching and so true!

    Nothing will be ok until we learn to accept the differences, not as different but as an integral part of our future needs as a society.

    Spoken as a true sibling, my dear. I completely agree. I wonder if we share this perspective because these differences have always been our normal?

    • letstalkautism
      Posted at 19:39h, 29 September Reply

      Thank you for saying so! Yes, I think a lot of it comes from it being our normal, which we just want others to understand and share. Taking the time to accept a person for who they really are opens up so many windows of opportunity, compassion and love. We truly are blessed to be able to share our experiences with the world even when it is hard and feels like nobody gets it!

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