Learning empathy from my autistic children

I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but I am not. At least, I am not yet.

I do care about people. I worry about friends and family. I feel bad for people who are down on their luck. I sympathize with fictional characters in movies and cry at the drop of a hat.

But when I look inside of myself, what I find more than compassion is blatant self-centeredness. I want others to be happy, but their happiness comes second to my own. I feel bad for others in their suffering, but really I think they should feel bad for me because I have it so much worse. I deserve a break from the mean, cruel world that does not get how hard things are for me, but other people really ought to learn to suck it up and deal.

I need to learn empathy. Fortunately for me, the Lord has given me two able teachers in the form of my children.

I love my boys, but I do not understand them. Their autism frustrates their attempts to communicate and largely keeps them locked in a world to which I do not have access. I am happy when they laugh, but I almost never understand the joke – Was it some funny word I said? The way the light is falling on the floor? What’s so funny about that?

Even more distressing is that I rarely understand what is upsetting them. And something is always upsetting them. Rarely does a day go by without several major freak outs. These go far beyond the tantrums of typical children. They can be long and sustained, sometimes even violent, often lasting for hours on end. When my oldest gets upset enough, he will even bite his own arms, leaving massive bruises.

It is very tiring to live in this environment. It is like living in a war zone. You never know when the quiet will erupt into chaos. And even when things are stable, there is little I can do to connect with my children. I cannot have a conversation with them. I cannot share in their interests  because they largely do not have any. My nine-year-old son’s main interests are showering and baby toys that make noises. How do I connect with that?

So instead I go into my own head. It is surprisingly easy to do. I play on social media, or watch television, or when all else fails I simply turn ideas over in my mind. I become a self-contained unit. I do my best to survive the long afternoons, ignoring as best I can the behaviors of my children that I find most frustrating. I even have the nerve sometimes to accuse my children of lacking empathy because they interrupt my mind wandering with their demands!

What I do not do–what never even occurs to me–is to put myself in their shoes and imagine living in a scary world in which people are constantly talking but I cannot understand them, in which I have many needs and wants but no way to express them, in which the only things that are calming and make any sense are things like the droplets of water coming out of the shower head or the predictable sound effects made by a toy.

Fr. Michael Rennier recently wrote a piece about the great Edith Stein and her advice on cultivating empathy. Stein was a German Jew who became a Catholic nun in the 1930s, taking the name Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis where she died in 1942. Today the Church recognizes her as a saint and a martyr. She was known for her great compassion and kindness even in the concentration camp. Earlier in life, she had written extensively about empathy.

Rennier says that one piece of advice on how to be more empathetic that can be gleaned from Stein’s writing is to get out of our own heads. “Empathy is, among other things, a way of learning to appreciate foreign experiences,” he says. “In the same way that travel broadens the mind, so too does looking at the face of another person and glimpsing another beautiful, mysterious, unique mind. The effort is always worth it.”

Is it worth the effort though? Sometimes it does not feel like it. As my wife says, “Sometimes the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” Hours upon hours of behavioral therapy, trips out to places where they freak out or refuse the bathroom, controlled environments, medications, repetitive movements, attempts to teach things like simple play let alone something like brushing teeth or tying shoes, and the simplest spark of connection still feels elusive.

But then the tiniest victory in the world melts my heart. My nine-year-old manages to push the cart for a while at the supermarket. My five-year-old walks into a room, looks up at the Captain America action figure on the shelf, reaches out his hands and says clear as day, “I want Superman.” These are moments that are more precious than gold. They are moments when my children move just a bit into the world I inhabit, creating a slightly larger space in the center of the venn diagram in which our worlds overlap. When this happens, I realize for a moment how hard they are trying, how difficult it must be to be them. It is not all about my frustrations or what I hoped parenting might be. It is not about me at all. It is about them. They are the people God has given me to care for. They need me to help them to survive in a world that largely has no place for them. If the only thing I ever do in my whole life is to love, serve, and protect them, it will be a life well lived.

What my children have been teaching me without me realizing it is that my own mind is a closed and lonely place if I do not push past the borders of my comfort. Caring for my kids is not simply a matter of providing them with a roof and three square meals a day. It involves a deeper kind of work in which I make an effort to discover what it means to live in their worlds just as they struggle with how to navigate in mine. If I did not have severely autistic children, I do not know that it would ever occur to me to look at things this way, not just from another person’s perspective but from the vantage point of someone marked as radically other than “normal.” But my children constantly challenge me, which blesses me, because it makes me see that there are so many other people in this world than my limited scope of vision would like to let in. When I see the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, I see something of my children in them and it opens my heart in a way it never did before.

I am not yet the empathetic and compassionate person I want to be, but with the help of Langston and Micah I am learning.

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2 thoughts on “Learning empathy from my autistic children

  1. There is a foundational principle in this lovely piece that resonates across our society, especially after Charlottesville. No matter how much we disagree with another, no matter how much we revIle a brief system, we must see the innate dignity and worth of every human. It is the beginning of understanding and empathy. It is the beginning of healing.

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