Autism, Empathy and Me

 It’s a myth that autistic people don’t feel empathy.

Some autistic people may appear to lack empathy but it’s generally the case that they feel it but don’t know how to respond appropriately.

Some autistic people, like myself, have too much empathy..

I am hypersensitive to everything in life. Just as my senses work overtime so does my empathy.

My first recollection of being this way starts at school where children (including me) were singled out because they were different..

In primary school there was this boy..

I vividly remember the smell of him and the threadbare clothes he wore for days at a time. Having sensory issues I was acutely aware of the unwashed odour but never moved myself away from as other children did. They made a game of pushing each other into him and running off shouting that they’d got some disease because they’d touched his clothes.

Gets you right here doesn’t it? *taps heart*

I hated the other kids for that.

I hated myself for not making them stop.

More than anything I felt compassion and that overrode the sensory stuff.

It’s a different kind of sadness now. Back then I was a child who didn’t understand poverty. We were by no means well off but we had everything we needed and our basic needs were met. I’m a mother now who understands that, for whatever reason, his needs weren’t met. I never knew his story or how he came to be neglected like that. Maybe his mother was struggling to cope? Or ill? Maybe he didn’t have a mum? Whatever the reason it wasn’t his fault because he was just a boy.

I still think of him and always will and even though he’s grown up like me, he will always be that little boy.

A couple of years later we moved and I started my new school in the last year of juniors. The bullying, which had been sporadic until then, stepped up a few gears and would remain the case until I left school five years later.

So there was this girl..

The first day I saw her she was sitting alone in the hall eating her dinner. I didn’t give any thought as to why she was sitting on her own while everybody else was in groups. I just remember the stomach churning stench of cabbage and the sight of her with her bright red hair sat alone on a big table..

She saw me standing there, tray in hand, not knowing where to put myself and motioned for me to sit beside her. So I did and was grateful to her for being the ONE person in the room to welcome me.

The other kids made fun of her hair, among other things. I’ve never understood this about red hair because I think it’s beautiful. Jane Asher? Gorgeous!

This girl came from a big family and her clothes were nearly always too large for her. They were obviously hand-me-downs. She got picked on for that too. Where I’d come from it was the norm to wear your siblings cast-offs. I’d certainly never witnessed such snobbery before but it was clear that what was written on a pair of trainers mattered a great deal to some of my class ‘mates’.

The children dehumanised her. The abuse was constant and her defence was to cry or laugh back as if it was all some big joke. Some joke! They were arseholes to her and I wanted to make them to stop but didn’t know how. On the outside I was expressionless and motionless but inside I was imploding. This would stay with me all day affecting my mood. At home I would be difficult without understanding why. I know now that things stay with me long after the event.

There was almost a sense of relief when they turned their attention from her to me because it was easier to bear my own pain than hers. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I have rearranged it all in my head and stood up for her.

In my head, I stood up for myself EVERY time.

So when I hear about teenage kids ‘snapping’ and going a bit psychobilly at school, I have sympathy for them because they have nearly always had to endure years of bullying which is abuse. It doesn’t excuse it but explains it. I snapped and punched a girl who’d been bullying me but that was after enduring four years of daily abuse. I’m not a violent person but we’re ALL capable of violence when the right buttons have been pushed and that applies to EVERY human being on this planet. Piss the Dalai Lama off enough and he’d probably right hook you too!

The problem with my autism is that I feel too much and that’s both good and bad. Good because I can experience things and feel euphorically happy. Bad because I soak up negative energies and pain. I have so many memories and thoughts that I wish I didn’t have..

I am still haunted by the Jamie Bulger story and often lie awake thinking of the 15 year old boy who went to the 1989 semi cup final football match in Hillsborough and died in the arms of a policewoman, his last word being “Mum”.

I can’t watch horror films and struggle to watch scenes of violence. When my anxiety is at its worst such scenes will trigger panic attacks. I can cope with scenes of bullying if there is an element of humour to them, as in, the bullies are made to look foolish. However, bullies are made, not born. To understand a bully you have to know their life and more often than not there will be something (or someone) that changed them. Painful memories may cloud my empathy towards certain people but it’s still there at default level. Yeah, they were bastards who hit me but who hit them?

The Boy is also highly empathetic. He couldn’t watch the BBC 2 Venus flytrap indent that was running last year. He covered his ears and looked away EVERY time.

The Boy has empathy by the bucket load and is autistic. Like everything else in his world, it’s amplified. Colours are BRIGHTER. Sounds are LOUDER and he feels emotions with such INTENSITY that it physically HURTS him. However, he struggles to react appropriately and so people misjudge him..

So many things about autism are misunderstood and empathy is one of the big ones.

I’m here to help my sensitive child understand the world which is a hard task seeing as I struggle myself but I can teach him what he needs to survive and hopefully thrive. Maternal instinct makes you do things you wouldn’t normally dream of. I just wish I could have done something to lessen the pain of those two children at school. Their pain, hopefully long gone, will always be mine.

The problem with empathy is not being able to let go of something, even when it’s a memory.

“for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

Milan Kundera ~ The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Spectrum Sunday

9 thoughts on “Autism, Empathy and Me

    • This is true and I’d say that a lot of people are indifferent. For instance, they may become indifferent to adverts on TV about abuse. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s just that it no longer shocks. That’s not how it works with me. I react the same every time. Autistic people tend to be highly sensitive and empathy causes actual pain that lasts.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I once listened to this chap on tv, heartbreaking account of his younger life. Parents who didn’t care, no clean clothes and he slept on a bare mattress on the floor. He had the added trouble of being a bed wetter and he knew he went to school sticking of urine, how the hell was this missed by the teachers but maybe back in the day, no one carried the responsibility? He sat and said how he was never invited to parties or even after school play dates, no parent encouraged their children to be his friend BUT he understood why, he at a very young age understood why, he stunk, he was dirty. As he got older he did manage to make a couple of mates but he could never invite them to his house (it wasn’t a home) it was a flea pit. My mind is working overtime Tracy and I think the younger me with young kids might have been one of the bury your head in the sand parents in the playground, would I have encouraged mine to play with him and bring him home, hand on heart I don’t know what I would have done then. Even if he had come round for a hearty meal and I could have washed and dried his clothes, I would have then sent him home, THIS IS PLAYING WITH MY MIND AND I WISH I WASN’T NOW TORTURING MYSELF, ON WHAT IFS. Today without a doubt I would call the social services. He grew into a great man but I will never forget his words and I know he would never get his childhood back. There was no child like that in my kids school, so I know I never let a child I knew suffer but I’ve always played the what would I have done…..?
    Atrocities with kiddies always hit home when you can compare them to the age of your own children, for days after you need extra hugs with them, watch them sleeping etc and count your blessing. The older I get, my thoughts and empathise get so much stronger, tears flow freely when I watch tv, my mind try’s to imagine but obviously I can’t get nowhere near to their pain but it doesn’t stop me trying. I think it’s just human good nature, kindness, empathy…….so many words. However unlike your brain technology, I can differentiate between fact and fiction. For you to watch a drama and then suffer anxiety and panic attacks must be awful, no rest for your brain from today’s full on 24 hour tv, social media, radio etc, you get no let up.
    You were a brave kid during school age, EVERY morning of EVERY school day must have been torture, being placed in a huge, strong smelling, noisy, people filled, concrete prison must have been hell.
    However, you’re a survivor and you should congratulate yourself Tracy! 💪
    Big loves 😘💞xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks lovely, great to hear that everything turned out good for that man. I hope everything turned out well for the boy in my post but he’ll always be that little boy to me. Lufs xxxxx

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  2. Beautiful post. I have a boy who feels things so deeply and is on the spectrum. I am not (as far as I know) but I also feel empathy very acutely. Sometimes so much it stops me functioning, in the way you describe with provoking extreme anxiety and not being able to sleep for weeks after hearing certain things. It is a blessing and a curse I think. Thank you so much for linking with #spectrumsunday. We hope you join us again tomorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

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