empathy explored – and ignored

Last Tuesday, journalist and author Emily Bazelon gave a talk on girls and autism at TEDxWomen 2012. The link to the video of her talk found its way into my inbox three different times last week. Each time, the sender asked some version of the same question – “What do you think of this?”

Each time, I balked at answering. I simply couldn’t bring myself to watch it. You see, the link was titled, “The Particular Tragedy of Autistic Girls” and well, that wasn’t exactly inviting to a mama who sees her girl as anything but a tragedy.

But it made its way into my inbox again this morning, and finally, I couldn’t ignore it. I bit the bullet, praying that the title was simply misleading. What I found was profoundly disappointing.

I don’t doubt that Ms Bazelon had the best of intentions when she spoke. She seems like a lovely woman, and, for all appearances, one who wants to make things better for girls like my daughter and the women they will become. Unfortunately, I fear that she’s doing far, far more harm than good.

She begins by delineating autism. High Functioning Autism, or Asperger’s, she explains, is marked by “the profound social difficulties of autism with a normal to high IQ.” Later, she will tell us that “Classic Autism means low IQ.” As I trust my audience to know, this is an oversimplified, artificial, inaccurate and desperately misleading bifurcation of the autism spectrum. (See a prior post on the topic HERE.)

Sadly, this early oversimplification sets the stage well for what follows.

Ms Bazelon tells us about meeting a young teenager named Kaitlyn, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. In the course of her talk, she asks us the following question.

“What if you’re a girl like Kaitlyn and, through no fault of your own, your empathy sensors are essentially blocked? You get to school and you just can’t access all the social cues and ways of being in the world that seem to come easily to other girls.” Later she will ask, “But what if you are a girl like Kaitlyn – A girl with an empathy deficit?”

Throughout her talk, her own words will betray the absurdity of her assumption that Kaitlyn has ‘blocked empathy sensors’ or, indeed, ‘an empathy deficit.’ Yet, undaunted by her own inconsistency of thought, she will persist in perpetuating the stereotype until the bitter end.

“Kaitlyn would hear other kids talking and she felt intensely left out,” she will say. “While it’s hard for [autistic girls] to express empathy, they care a great deal about what their peers think,” she will add. She will even tell us that when she last checked in with Kaitlyn, now in her last year of high school, she told her that she is writing a book about animal spirits. I thought surely that last bit would give Ms Bazelon pause, but no such luck.

My daughter, who was diagnosed at age three with classic autism and has since been re-diagnosed with PDD-NOS, is the most empathetic creature I’ve ever encountered. She is, in fact, so empathetic as to be challenged by the intensity of empathy in and of itself. Much of her anxiety comes from her inability to filter her empathy. There is no hierarchy of caring for her. A baby crying in the distance is just as upsetting to her as her Mama crying in front of her. “What happened to the baby?” she will ask without fail, “Did it fall out of its Mama’s arms?”

That said, my daughter’s social challenges stem not from an empathy deficit (or ‘blocked empathy sensors’ if you’d prefer) but in communicating her empathy to other people in the way that they expect it to be communicated. Dragging a cardboard book across my face to dry her Mama’s tears might not look to Ms Bazelon like empathy, but I can assure you, that’s precisely what it is.

As she begins to wrap up her talk, Ms Bazelon says, “I would like to tell you that it gets better for girls like Kaitlyn and Marguerite – for girls with autism when they get older, but sadly, that’s not sometimes not the case.” And then she asks the question, “So what can we do to help girls and women with autism?”

Well, I would argue that one of the first things that we can do is to stop making assumptions about who they are and what they feel – or don’t. We can TALK to them. And when we do, we can LISTEN to what they have to say – in whatever mode or capacity they are able to ‘say’ it.

We can stop wedging them into the narrow theories to which we’ve grown attached over the years and begin to open our ears and — and our hearts — to the idea that, maybe, just maybe, *real* empathy starts when we realize that neurotypicals aren’t the only ones who experience it.

Brooke, comforting her sister, July, 2011

I’d encourage Ms Bazelon, and anyone else with an interest in the topic, to check out Rachel Cohen Rottenberg’s fabulous website, Autism and Empathy.

Click HERE for one of my favorite articles on the topic.

Ed note: I fear that my gratitude to Ms Bazelon for shining a light on some of the very real challenges faced by autistic girls and women may be lost in the fact that I have taken issue here with the WAY in which she went about doing so.

So, for the record, I do appreciate her efforts, and in no way, shape nor form do I want to shut down the dialogue. To the contrary, I want to ensure that we delve more deeply into it, engaging autistic girls and women when we do so that THEY can lead the conversation and lead us to a better understanding of their experience.

83 thoughts on “empathy explored – and ignored

  1. I plan to write a post on this subject also. I will listen to the video clip when I finish with finals…..stuff like this really irritates me and I am glad you finally bit the bullet and wrote about it. We write about autistic experiences as well.


  2. Oh my. I see your point Jess.

    I did a TEDx event just over a year ago on planning communities for Autism. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t describe Autism and it’s impact individuals and their families, friends, and co-workers correctly and fully enough. I still wonder if I did a good job of it. I felt like I had to leave out so much that is important to fit into the 10 minutes of time I was given.

    That said….Empathy deficit? Really? Geesh.

    • i have no doubt that trying to truncate a talk as big as this to make it fit into a ten minute time slot is tough. i experience that challenge when i write posts on topics that feel like they would still not be fully explored as books. that said, words matter and i would implore ms bazelan to choose hers more carefully next time so as not to perpetuate dangerous stereotypes about autistic people.

      and i’m sure yours was fabulous 🙂

  3. I had never heard of Ms Bazalon, and now I am glad. While it is my son who has Autism (moderate to severe or I guess classic) it has always been acknowledged that if he could take the tests, he would test at the genius level. Jim, like Brooke shows a high level of empathy. So called experts like this woman are why we have had such a difficult time with getting our children included in programs with so called typical children.

    • Agreed, We have no way to reliably (or hell, even unreliably) test IQ for the profoundly autistic. The assumption that because we can’t test it, it must be low is absurd, desperately ableist and leads to extremely damaging assumptions about people on the spectrum.

    • I’m upset by this on many levels that I can’t even begin to express them all.

      1) Emily Bazelon says right at the beginning she’s a journalist. So she isn’t an expert of any kind, just a person who’s made observations.

      2) When I went to her site & looked up her past writings, she many times uses language to describe bullying and mental illnesses in ways which are hurtful. One article, about criminals with mental illness is entitled “Crazy Making”.

      3) Her views on girls in general aren’t based off of much other than her own view point. “Boys tend to bully boys and girls while girls often only bully other girls.”

      I don’t have a daughter with Autism, I have a son with Autism. But I am a woman and in my life, I am raising boys to be good role models and be good supports for the female gender. The thing about Autism, is that it is a spectrum and that’s very hard to understand until you live directly in the midst of it. Blanket, uneducated statements about anything is a bad idea, but her statements aren’t just bad, they’re harmful.

      • “Blanket, uneducated statements about anything is a bad idea”

        Agreed. Gross generalizations work nowhere less than when speaking about autism. Not sure that sentence was English, but I trust you to translate. 🙂

  4. Thank you for this. Three children on the spectrum – three very different places on the spectrum, two of them girls. That woman should come live in our house for five minutes before she makes so many very wrong, very hurtful assumptions. I hope she reads this. But mostly, I hope she gets to know – really know – some autistic people herself. Then she might have some different ideas. I can think of many words to describe my girls – loving, intelligent, beautiful…. but “tragedy”? Doesn’t even enter into my thoughts.

  5. I am at minute 4:00 and can barely continue… could she try not to reinforce every freakin’ stereotype in one fell swoop? I can NOT believe she is some sort of empathy expert if this is the kind of thing she is “teaching” to people. Girls are less likely to have the fixation on math? Seriously?? The two aspie girls in my life are science/math focussed. My aspie son is all about language. Ahhhh!!!

    (Okay, going back in for more).

    • Oh. Dear.

      Here’s the illogical logic loop that I take away from that video…

      Children with autism have an empathy deficit (incorrect fact 1). Neuro-typicals need to make up for this with their empathy surplus. There are bullies out there. Bullies have an empathy deficit. We need bullies to learn empathy through face to face interaction. Then everyone would make life better for children with autism with said empathy deficit. Huh?

      Oh. Dear.

  6. I had such mixed feelings when I watched it…on one hand glad that it was the subject of a TEDx talk and that she had spent time with some incredible young women to get a sense of who they were but on the other hand her tone was condescending and the language she used rubbed me the wrong way from the start. So I watched again. And felt even more annoyed and frustrated by it. I do hope someone forwards this to Emily so she sees that there is so much more to uncover and, as you always say Jess, words DO matter.
    Actually, I’d rather have one of the amazing young ladies she featured do a TEDx talk of their own 🙂

      • And because I can’t stop about this…the article in Slate magazine that featured this with the “tragedy” title has the author say “I was in tears watching this…” Which reminded me that so many people will watch this without the autism connection that we all have here. they’ll view this as truth and as reality and cry and offer up their “empathy surplus” through the tragedy lens. And misconceptions and stereotypes will continue to spread.

  7. I have to wonder why she feels she can have an opinion on this at all.. If she is just a journalist and only going on her observations, how dare she generalize an entire group of people. When my son was diagnosed with Aspereger’s we were told, everyone is different, even with the same diagnosis. My son has Asperger’s and yes, he does not get the social cues, and does not make eye contact, but please do not tell me his empathy sensors are blocked.. they may be different from the rest of us, but not blocked..

  8. Right there with you on this Jess. My daughter has an over-abundance of emotion. She is VERY empathetic but his a difficult time with emotional control. Even sad sounding music will make her cry so she tries to avoid a lot of situations that involve sad emotions. I can only imagine how uncomfortable and distressing it is for her to lack that control. I was just saying to a friend how I hate it when the media portrays people with autism as not having emotions or empathy. I hope this woman does some more research before she tries to give a speech like that again.

  9. it is so misleading to state that people with autism (male or female) lack empathy. They simply express it differently (such as your example of wiping tears with a cardboard book) my son is similar – he bumped my head accidentally the other day and instantly rubbed it and kissed it better. This may be learned behaviour but his expression of remorse and his genuine apology tells me otherwise. Blanket statements about empathy such as Ms Bazelon’s do everyone touched by autism a massive disservice. It demonstrates a massive lack of empathy on her part – how much time has she actually spent with people who have autism? It would appear she has failed to get close enough to fully understand the complete picture of empathy and autism.

  10. I remember someone referring to people with autism as robotic. I must say that my son has so much compassion and empathy. Often more than the “normal” kids or people. It is unfortunate that she is speaking on something she obviously has ignored to educate herself about. Textbook and real life are two different things. Thank you for writing this post! I will be sharing it!

  11. I can’t bring myself to watch the clip. My son (obviously not female, but definitely autistic) is very empathetic. Overly so. He is so sensitive to the feelings of others around him that it is evident on his face as well as his words. It radiates from him. How much harm has been done by someone others perceive to be experts who really don’t have a clue?

  12. I hate the statement that Autistic children are unable to show empathy! It’s like if they say this enough it will be true, because obviously your daughter, my son, and thousands of the ASD children do show empathy. Maybe our children do not show it in the right context or maybe they’re slow to voice it, or maybe these people missed it, but they feel it just the same as anyone else. I really think these people should take their out of date theories and trot themselves into one of the Autism programs and just spend a day with our children before they continue to talk nonsense.

  13. Whilst, as you said, the intention behind this speech might have been well meant, the perpetuation of a false belief that individuals on the spectrum lack the ability to empathise is sad. It is a misrepresentation and confuses the idea of being able to comprehend that everyone has different thoughts/feelings and perceptions regarding the world (i.e.: not everyone loves Thomas trains hee hee ), with the ability to feel someone else’s pain etc. Having an ability to empathise is not something only neurotypical have the capacity to do, just as an inability to empathise is not just something an individual on the spectrum has. Although my son might not understand why someone he cares about is upset or crying, he has an innate ability to ‘sense’ that something is wrong, to want to hug that person to make them feel better, and often to express his empathy for them by crying himself. To dismiss any person on the spectrum as being incapable of empathising or having an ‘empathy deficit’ does them an incredible disservice. Keeping the discussion open about our children, young adults and including them in the discussion is vital. I wish you and your beautiful family a wonderful, safe, happy and Merry holidays xx

  14. Jess, I’ve asked before, but I will try one more time since it relates directly to this topic. Life is crazy busy and time is precious and this is asking a lot of you. I get that, but my daughter created a video message to her peers in high school last year. To explain her experience with their lack of empathy for her and all people on the spectrum. It is her message. I would love you to hear it. Once you hear and see it. I think you will know why I asked. I’m no computer genius, so all I can tell you is if you go to YouTube and type in…We are no different, you and I. Katie Parker” s Senior Presentation…..it would mean the world to hear another Mom’s feedback.

    • Will do – juggling advent book reading, homework finishing, bed readying and comment approving – but definitely will. Thank you for sharing.

    • I watched your daughter’s video, Anne. It is so well done; both moving and inspirational. The only people lacking empathy in her story are her peers. She sounds lovely. Best wishes, Andrea

    • thank you again for sharing — you must be incredibly proud of your girl. i linked to the video in a post script on this morning’s post. 🙂

  15. I’m so glad you wrote about this. Could you do another flow chart, perhaps, with “if you think you know what autism IS and what autistic people ARE…?”

  16. Interviewing and observing a few autistic individuals does NOT give someone the right to make such gross generalizations. *sigh*

    My son was diagnosed with classic autism and his empathy sensors work just fine. In fact, he often knows when someone is hurting without even being told. He may not show his empathy traditionally, but those who know him definitely see and experience it.

    It irritates me when these negative stereotypes are perpetuated.

  17. Nice post, Jess.
    Sorry, but I couldn’t watch the video through.
    Apparently she has never heard the saying, “When you’ve met one autistic kid, you’ve . . . well, met one autistic kid.”

  18. I have been blessed to work with and get to know many, many kids both with and without autism over the past two decades. Expression of empathy comes in many forms. Just because this journalist did not see it expressed in a way that fit into her pre-conceived notion of empathic behavior doesn’t mean the girls she was discussing aren’t empathic. Empathy is a full body experience that sometimes is expressed subtly, or in an uncommon manner. It may even be felt so strongly that it floods. I think Ms. Bazelon is mistaking unique sensory experiences and different means of communicating for a lack of feeling.

    She is also missing out on a chance to get to know some pretty remarkable girls by seeing them through the lenses of her stereotypes instead of listening, seeing, and dare I say, feeling the things the girls are passing on to her.

    For someone who claims to want to give even greater empathy, I think she is on the wrong track, one does all people with autism or other differences a disservice.

    • I think Ms. Bazelon is mistaking unique sensory experiences and different means of communicating for a lack of feeling.

      Agreed. Thank you, Miss Marjory.

  19. This is colonization in the worst sort of way. We have done away with the colonial need to “speak” for those marginalized groups who were thought to have no voice (women, people of different races, the poor, etc.), and yet this persists in relation to those with autism. My husband is doing his dissertation work on showing that people with autism can indeed express themselves and empathy in their writing, but only when we don’t colonize it and tell ourselves what it is they are feeling and when we don’t use our preset notions (and in the world of rhetoric and composition our pre-set assessments) to judge them on it.

    As the mom to a non-verbal child with ASD, I often make leaps about what I assume he’s feeling, but this is based on observation, love of my child, and a long-history with him. Like many of the other beautiful children discussed here, my son shows connection to our family and what we’re feeling in many different ways. It is the work of my life to understand what he’s saying. He’s leading the journey, I’m taking my cues from him.
    Generalizations like the ones on this video highlight our own ignorance of the autistic mind and experience. That’s why all the self-advocacy you’ve been talking about, encouraging, and fostering through this powerful blog are so important. Thanks for what you do Jess, and thanks to all you amazing autism moms and dads! We are helping our children find their voices (verbal or otherwise), not speaking for them. : )

    • I never would have thought to use the word colonization, but it makes perfect sense. what scares me most about this is that it helps to further dehumanize our kids. if we can convince the world that they don’t feel anything for others, it makes it a lot easier for the world not to feel anything for them. unexpected expression of emotion does not negate the presence of the emotion.

  20. As a young adult with Autism, there were many things that came to my mind after I read this post and watched a small portion of the video. The first being that I totally agree with you Jess! 🙂 People with Autism definitely do indeed have and show empathy. Lack of empathy is one of those myths about Autism that I often debunk. I am so caring, I always help those in need. I comfort people when they are upset, ask people if they are okay, and tell people I am there for them. THIS IS EMPATHY.

    • Oh, Chloe. You do – you show so much love and yes, empathy to my girl. The first question you ask me EVERY time you write is “How was Brooke’s day?” When you knew she was under the weather, yours was the first text each morning, asking if she was okay.

      For the love of God, my dear, if that’s not empathy, I’m stumped.

      • You are so right Jess! That is Empathy! And Brooke and I telling each other we are friends forever. 🙂 This is Empathy! I ask Brooke how school was, and how I am, we make each other happy, that my friend is Empathy. We have empathy. 🙂

  21. When our five year old was diagnosed PDD-NOS, the psychologist assured us that he felt our daughter was highly empathic; something my wife and I already knew. Her challenge, too, is an inability to filter her empathy. A lack of empathy is a characteristic of a fundamentally different kind of disorder and one which is grossly overlooked in our society.

  22. I have 2 daughters on the spectrum, and both show empathy in their own way. It might be the way an NT would expect it, but, they do not lack it, by any means. I am an over protective momma bear so I refuse to even watch the video for fear of lashing out on this woman and saying some not so nice things with some not so very nice words. Jess, Thank you for all you do for kids like ours. Your blog has truly helped me handle the entire situation with my daughters and also helped me realize that this was nothing I did or did not do.

  23. I think many NTs confuse our inability to express empathy as they do, with a lack of empathy. Our empathy may look different, but that doesn’t make it less real.One big difference is that unlike NTs we don’t use platitudes to express sympathy we don’t feel.

    • This .

      “I think many NTs confuse our inability to express empathy as they do, with a lack of empathy. ”

      Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. That’s it. Thank you.

  24. Just from the comments posted, I think she was confusing a child’s inability to sometimes adequately EXPRESS empathy and their often inability to read nonverbal cues with a lack of empathy. I agree that it would be bullies that do not have empathy, and it is people with differences, like our kids, that bullies target. I know for my son, it isn’t that he might not notice someone crying, but that he doesn’t notice the person at all. He also tends to have extreme feelings. Frustration and sadness come out as long screams and tears. Happiness comes out with him jumping and giggling. Anger comes out with maybe something thrown, but usually, “Fine, I don’t want to do X anymore.” The rest of the time, he is kind of expressionless… not really happy, but not really sad.

    • “I think she was confusing a child’s inability to sometimes adequately EXPRESS empathy and their often inability to read nonverbal cues with a lack of empathy.”

      Yes – and the expression of an emotion or the reading of nonverbal language or social cues are very, very different than the emotion itself, no? Totally distinct concepts.

  25. So.I couldn’t bring myself to watch video but I did read what you wrote and what others had to say. My 6 yr old daughter is autistic . She can read facial expression and body languag. She gets it. In fact she is oe of the most loving caring child I know. She is he first one to tell me its going to be ok . She sometimes comes up and says “its ok to have a bad day mom” I know my daughter’s heart and I know that she shows empathy for everyone around. She always wants to be the first to help. Kids with autism have no empathy my butt. It saddens.me to know that she looks at our children and tries to determine what they can’t instead of what they can .

  26. I am a big fan of TED and am so disappointed that they allowed this woman who obviously knows nothing about Autism to give this talk. I’m a mom of a nearly 4 yr old boy with PDD-NOS and I’m baffled at the comment she made that it’s easier for autistic boys because its more “acceptable” for boys to be social awkward. Who says stuff like that??! Come on TED, you can and have done better than this.

  27. My daughter expresses a mixed up type of empathy, her brother falling down the stairs doesn’t faze her, but me crying sets her into sobs. I was at first very moved by this clip, glad someone was bringing notice to the differences between girls and boys in ASD’s. But after reading your post and re-listening to the video I started to question my first reaction – specifically about how boys are more accepted as children with Autism because of their naturally awkward natures (autism understatement of the year?) and her stats on girls vs boys who have ASD. She states that more boys than girls *have autism* when she could have taken that opportunity to say that more boys than girls are *diagnosed* with Autism because of how differently autism is sometimes (often) presented in girls. I agree with your post – I think she does do more harm than good here. My hope is that people come away from her talk thinking about differences in girls vs boys and do research about that (to find out the facts) and that they do not walk away thinking she explained the reasoning behind lack of empathy or that the solution is as simple as us giving more empathy for them – whatever that means.

  28. Jess, if you get to enter into dialouge with Ms Bazelon, would you please let us know? Even if you aren’t able to divulge the wherewithall of the conversation, it would close the loop for a lot of us knowing that even if she didn’t change her mind, she was exposed to some truth.

    And by the way… how was YOUR day today? 🙂

  29. Oy, I really don’t feel like I can articulate anything. I will have to watch the video when I have time. But yes, these assumptions are sending the speaker down a rocky road that is a dead end (in my opinion). And girls in high school, NT or not NT face challenges that find empathy in short supply but I guess that’s a different topic. Thank you for sharing this, for your unfailing diplomacy that nevertheless asks the hard questions and invites civil dialogue.

  30. I wrote a short version of our story on Twitter (is there any other kind?) but the myth about empathy in girls hurt us in the early stages. Because of the pervasive stereotype about empathy and emotional IQ, well-meaning relatives and friends told us as we began the process that we were “mistaken” about our concerns: “She’s so generous and good with adults. She’s so intuitive and empathetic. That is NOT autism.” Direct, verbatim quote, by the way–from a family member who works in special ed, no less. :-/

    Well. My daughter is nearly through the diagnostic journey, but the doctors and therapists with whom we’ve met agree that she is most definitely on the spectrum. That may not be what society thinks autism is, but that is what OUR autism is: that is my wonderful, emotional, finely attuned, autistic daughter, who needs help from professionals, and who was written off by so many because she didn’t fit a generalized stereotype.

    Speaking for the whole group by painting with a single brushstroke hurts everyone.

    • Your quote about how it “couldn’t be autism” sounded so familiar! Our girl is very loving and has a great sense of humor and a great imagination.

      Way to go for sticking up for what you knew to be true about your beautiful daughter.

  31. My son was diagnosed with “classic autism” at age 3, but could read at a 1st grade level before age 2! Generalizing is dangerous in any aspect of life.

  32. It’s not that our girls lack empathy. The woman who lacks empathy is the woman making a choice to cut them all to size. The woman more concerned with selling books on the (misguided) premise that our girls are broken and beyond repair. The misguided premise that if our sad, dysfunctional children had been male, they would somehow be immune to the pain left behind from society’s misdeeds. THE LACK OF EMPATHY I SEE COMES IN THE FORM OF SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION AT THE EXPENSE OF 3 YOUNG WOMEN. And because her brand of bullying is so slick and silver-tongued, most don’t even recognize it as such. However, paying her any additional attention is counterproductive. All we are doing is drawing attention to her stereotypical brand of exclusivity. Who is she to define our girls? Remember, it’s bullies for whom the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad press” was created. If nobody remembers her name, no one will purchase her book, and she will no longer profit from the humiliation and exploitation of these 3 young women.

    • I understand your anger completely. But I don’t think that Ms Bazelon is a bully – at least not an intentional one. I do think that it’s important to talk about and deconstruct these stereotypes, lest we leave them standing, to be believed and further perpetuated by those who might have watched her talk without any other point of reference for what autism really is.

      • You are always the voice of reason. When are you going to take the step from “super blogger” to published author and public speaker? Your voice for our babies is strong when ours is weak. You have a gift, my friend. An outstanding gift that I, for one, believe you should be compensated for. Just watering seeds that I’m sure have already been planted 😉

  33. My daughter is now 4. Diagnosed at age 2. Just like your daughter she displays enormous amounts of empathy!!! Interesting when you compare that with what Miss Emily claimed to be true. Thanks for your post!

  34. My daughter is 5 and had a late diagnosis of autism. We are still learning and feeling our way through all of this. After a lengthy meeting with the ABA therapist to discuss her treatment plan, I came home and read your article. So I asked my husband “do you thing Emily has empathy” not realizing she was listening. She looked at me and said” I don’t have no enttapy… I’m sorry momma”. Then gave me a hug. I’d say yep… She has empathy!

  35. There are so many ridiculous stereotypes about autistic people and I like the the phrase, if you met a person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. My son with autism saw a classmate crying on the floor and he went over to her, patted her on the back, and asked her if she was ok. This was a big first for us! It frustrates me that this talk had to be on a well respected forum like TED. I would like to assume that she has good intentions but she took something important, how young girls with autism are doing in society, and made a farce of it. And the circular logic. Don’t get me started!

  36. Autism= lack of empathy? I think there’s enough of us calling BS just here in the comments to put that theory to rest once and for all, and I for one, am grateful for your strong and articulate voice on this subject. Struggling to communicate empathy and having a complete lack of it, are not even close to being the same thing.In our household,any family member that gets angry or cries is often asked by Vincent, our brilliant,sweet,beautiful and EMPATHETIC 10 year old, “How do you feel?! Be happy Please!! Are you happy??!! But the one memory that all this brought to mind for me was being at the hospital with my mom in her final few days, far from home, with no choice but to have my then 18 month old Vin with me. It did’ntfeel right, but with nobody to leave him with I told myself he would ‘t remember. This was back when autism was just a word to me. who knew he would be able to recite his entire second birthday celebration to this day!? Anyway, after a particularly hard day of very hard, gut wrenching decision making at the hospital, back at mom’s apartment, I was having a sobbing breakdown, lying in bed,unable to even care for my child, he came and rubbed by back and sang me to sleep.” Mommy sleep, mommy sleep” he sang in his 18 month old baby voice. It was scripted directly from Oobi, but I didn’t know things like “scripting”, “echolalia” or “theory of mind” back then, but it seems I sure knew empathy!

  37. When the doctor first used the word “autism” to describe my 3 year old son, I was heartbroken to hear that most likely meant he would live life without empathy or compassion for other people…two things I wanted so badly to pass on to my kids. Now, two years later, I can agree with you all that this is simply not the case. My son has empathy for other people’s feelings, and responds to social cues as well. Although when his 3 year old brother cries, he usually says, Winston crying! and smacks him on the head, when our 1 year old cries, he takes his hand and says Its ok, don’t cry Michael! Every day when he leaves school, he makes sure to say Goodbye to Sam, the boy in his class who also rides his bus. I’m disappointed at the direction this talk went, especially because it seems like this woman wanted to find “stories” to fit her preconceived idea instead of looking at the people that she met and letting their experiences dictate her talk. And finally, to people labeling autistic kids a “tragedy”, please save your concern for real tragedies, like miscarriages, homicide, world hunger. No parent has ever said that raising kids is easy, no matter what special circumstances you are dealt along the way. I love all my sons, because each of them has been a BLESSING.

  38. My son is quite empathetic – when he was younger (he’s now 19), he would take my emotions or those near him and amplify them then blast them in behaviors or meltdowns etc. Testing week at schools was a challenge building up to it as the stress of the teachers and students increased so would his. I’ve called him my emotional barometer. I’ve been working with him to understand that the emotions of others is not his and so he can choose to not engage it.

  39. Thank you so much
    I append to be a male,diagnosed as HFA,u just wrote what andered, pained and terified me all of my life,and still does,my baby girl is just like me,and no way i would ever abandoned her to the pro’s,never

  40. I am 24 and female and I have a diagnosis of autism. I am quite lucky because I have a ‘splinter skill’ which has made me very good at writing and understanding written words! I do have empathy and I can honestly say that during my four years living in care homes with other autistic people, that they too have and show empathy. Okay so I can be blunt at times and maybe not always notice that I have upset someone with my words, but at other times I will notice and I will apologise. One of the people I used to live with was diagnosed with classic autism. He was very textbook in a lot of ways with an intense interest in tractors and lawn mowers. A lot of people questioned whether he felt empathy. I found out one day that he did. My rabbit Jenifer died after an illness and he came over to see me. Everyone was a bit concerned about what would happen next because it was not unknown for him to unintentially say things that would make the situation worse! He leant down, grabbed my hands gently and said ‘I’m so sorry about Jenifer’ then wrapped me in a hug. At that point I was not the only person crying in the room! I don’t like people generalising about autism because it makes our self-esteem go lower and can cause problems. In my case the myth that all high functioning autistics can do complex maths has affected my confidence because I can’t! I might actually watch the video later if my computer allows me to!

  41. One of the most widespread stereotypes about all people on the autism spectrum is lack of empathy. It’s troubling to see these myths continually put out in social media as if they are facts. As an autistic woman, it’s even more concerning to see Ms. Bazelon’s talk directed toward autistic females. We already face a number of disparities which place hurdles before us. We’re not included in research studies as often as males, and too many of us fly under the diagnostic radar and don’t receive a diagnosis until later in life. It’s important that misinformation like that which is riddled throughout Ms. Brazelon’s talk be countered swiftly. It can’t be stressed enough that no one should be talking about autistic people without having first included autistic people in the preparation of material to be shared. I’m guessing Ms. Brazelon didn’t speak to a single autistic woman while preparing her talk. So. Very. Wrong. It can’t be stressed enough, “NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US!” Thank you for sharing this, Jess.

    Sharon daVanport
    Autism Women’s Network

    • Thank you, Sharon, for sharing your thoughts here and for all that you do every day to create a platform for so many voices that desperately need to be heard. I am so grateful that my daughter is growing up in a world where AWN exists and thrives. It’s everything.

  42. This is my perspective as a mother of a 16 year old girl who attends a public high school.
    There is quite a difference between empathy and theory of mind. My daughter has great empathy, but poor theory of mind. The first is about feelings, the second is about thoughts. Anticipating what someone might be thinking, and all the possible options is what is the challenge. The range of thoughts is infinite and thoughts in themselves are abstract. Feelings are pretty concrete and instinctual.

    I did “like” the slide that showed that girls with autism don’t have friendships with typical girls by the time they are 10 – which is true in our case. I agree with the point that the best way to learn is directly from typical peers. Despite the fact that my daughter is attending a wonderful public high school, as i had blogged – inclusion has not achieved the goal of social modeling and friendships that I really hoped and wished – perhaps unrealistically.


  43. My son is 14 and he has issues “putting himself in other’s shoes”. A good example of this is he cannot understand why his friend likes a particular girl he finds really annoying. He feels his friend is not being at all reasonable he should find her annoying also. Annoying is not cute! He also laughs when people slip or fall I swear he sees it like a movie like the 3 stooges or Tom and Jerry. He will get to laughing and them try to explain the humor while helping them up or even bandaging them up if needed but he is still laughing. He would be laughing if he fell also so why aren’t they. Pain is not the same for him so he would be mad he failed at what he was trying to do or laughing at what happened. It is almost useless to try to explain that they do not find it funny. If they blow up at him he will yell” I have autism alright, I can’t help it” if they don’t buy they are hurt or sad and someone helps him know that he will later give them a card or a gift and say he is sorry but he has autism and can’t help it.

  44. Pingback: Tackling a Few Myths About Autism | Simple. I Just Do.

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