At some point in the journey, every autism parent hears that people on the spectrum “lack empathy.” When our children are still young enough that we don’t know who they will become or how they will develop, we learn that they will likely never understand, or at least struggle to understand, the feelings of others.
Only, it’s not true. As in all things parenting (special needs or otherwise), your mileage may vary — but in my experience people on the spectrum are characterized by a difficulty in verbal expressions of empathy. That doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t there. Not by a long shot.
Saturday night, our backyard. Veronica and I are enjoying a glass of wine on the patio. Ryan and Riley each are begging us to play with them, but we suggest they find a way to play with each other. To our surprise, it works. Soon, they have devised a game that involves Ryan taking a slap shot at a beach ball with a hockey stick. He hits it deep into the backyard and Riley goes running after it. It seems she has to retrieve it by a certain count or Ryan gets a point. Or something like that. They were engaged with each other. That was enough for us.
I recall looking at Ryan lining up his “shot” in the fading daylight and casually remarking “this will end injury,” before heading inside.
Sure enough, a few minutes later Ryan came running into the house in great distress, telling me that Riley was hurt.
I dashed outside to find Riley crumpled in the yard, crying and holding her face. Her tongue was bleeding. Her lip was cut.
As we hustled her inside to get some ice on her fat lip, the story came out. She came upon Ryan just as he was taking his shot, and got smacked in the nose and mouth full-bore with a street-hockey stick. It certainly sounded accidental. Riley did not blame Ryan.
She was lucky — she got away with a couple scratches, a slight black eye, and some bruising on her nose. Nothing more evident than the fat lip.
It didn’t matter that it was an accident, or that Riley wasn’t seriously hurt. Ryan was very upset with himself. He apologized profusely and asked her over and over if she was OK. Searching for something that would make her feel better, he ran to his room.
Soon, a Five Seconds of Summer song was blasting from his computer. Ryan had found their video on YouTube. Riley loves “5SOS” (and if you have tween/early-teen daughters in the house I’m sure you’re familiar with their status as the “it” boy band of the moment.
It was a nice moment, and Riley appreciated it. I think she even managed a smile.
Here’s the thing, though. Ryan hates 5SOS. Like, with a capital H. Ryan is an old soul when it comes to music, and is entirely dismissive of Riley’s taste in modern pop music (hmm, I wonder where he got it from? … Guilty).
For him to seek out and play her favorite music was a tremendous expression of empathy. He was trying to do something that would not only make her feel better, but show what lengths he was willing to go to do so.
Empathy? In spades.