Sunday, March 9, 2014

Autism and Empathy: A Maggie Update

When you start reading about and researching autism you're likely to run into claims that people with autism struggle with empathy and understanding and recognizing others feelings.

While I know that my experience with Mae is just one tiny story on the spectrum, I've found that the exact opposite is true.  If I have a child who is going to sob because someone else was sent to their room or has fallen down and gotten hurt, it's going to be Maggie.

Yesterday Mae was having a tough morning and had spent a good deal of time snuggling with me on the couch.  She and her sister have been watching Frozen in the mornings and most mornings she loves the movie (okay, every morning except yesterday), as she suddenly loves all things princess.

But yesterday one of the last scenes came on (I'll try to be vague for those of you who haven't seen it but want to) on the frozen fjord and Mae leaned over and buried her head in my lap and starts to sob.  I glanced up and saw what was happening on the screen and held her and said:  "She loves her sister very much, just like you and your sister love each other very much, huh?"  And Maggie said, "Yeah!" in a clear, small voice, before dissolving into tears again.  And then the scene was over and she was back up playing and running and laughing.

Another moment I keep replaying in my mind came when Patrick was having one of his I'm-almost-a-year-and-a-half-old-and-I'll-cry-for-no-reason-if-I-want-to tantrums.  I was trying to console him over whatever it was and Maggie walked over and leaned over and studied his face with a very serious expression on her own face.  Then she leaned over and put her arms around him and started to hug him.  His little hand shot out with his hand flat, tapping her on the chest to stop the hug and she stopped and let him go and looked at him for a moment longer before sort of shrugging and running off to play.

And on those rare days that come about once a month when her big sister gets sent to her room for something for a few minutes, Maggie is inevitably the one who bursts into tears the moment I send her on her way, and has been known to cry until her sister returns downstairs.

No, from our little experience in our little corner of the world if I had to say that there is one person in our family feels the emotions of others more acutely, almost as if they were her own, I would say that it is Maggie, who will often shed tears when her brother or sister are upset, and who seems the most keenly attuned to what everyone around her is feeling.

She may not yet be able to express those feelings in words clearly, but for anyone who is watching they are there, clearly reflected in her expressions and actions as she seeks to comfort anyone who's upset or in pain.


  1. I remember being punished for "crying for no reason" as a very small child because some person would walk by in the grocery and I would start crying because they were sad or angry, or... And oddly enough they often didn't show it. Our eyes would meet and I would FEEL their pain and burst into tears. Drove my poor mothe nuts to have a child sobbing as though broken-hearted for no visible reason. People, very likely, would look at her as if she had hurt me, and I suspect that ended up why the constant message of "no more crying or I will give you something to cry about". Ah, my poor mom! Nobody talked about these things, it simply was never mentioned, as if there used to be an underlying belief that if your child were not perfect you must be a bad person. Not true of course, and cruel too. Just so you know, my mom is a good person and not abusive, she simply did not understand and negative memorie like this significant as much for their scarcity in the mass of stories being read and snuggles.

    There was that Star Trek episode, called The Empath I think, and I felt a kinship of soul with the voiceless Empath feeling everything inside herself, manifesting it physically in her own self. Sometimes I felt like that as a small child, before it became easier with maturity to avoid over-connecting.

  2. This popped up on my Facebook feed, and even though this young man's autism experience seems different from Mae's, I though you might still find it quite fascinating.

  3. It's fascinating because the more I learn about the autistic spectrum, the less easy it is to pin it down. My son won't (can't?) communicate in language, though he speaks perfectly well to himself. It's very likely he has mild Autism because his father does. But he is also extremely sensitive; has no trouble making eye contact; and is the most affectionate child!


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