I have started and stopped writing a new post several times since the horror in Newtown. The senseless loss of life was too much and then the media started trying to answer the question of why. They jumped immediately on a statement from the brother that the shooter was on the autistic spectrum and they combined that with the concept that the diagnosis pointed to a lack of empathy.
A lack of empathy due to autism? The message boards filled quickly with parents, family and those with autism spectrum disorders disputing the concept. For nearly a decade, I have been telling people that autism is terribly misunderstood. Empathy is just one part of that. Most say that those with autism do not want to be part of the world. When we take the time to work with those with autism, we find out they desperately want to be part of the world, but it is often physically painful and that is why they retreat.
When Peter was little, he would run in and out of a room filled with people over and over again. As he began to talk I discovered that he found the room too loud and needed a break. We were looking at it as him running from everyone rather than Peter trying over and over to run back in and handle the noise. After that, I programmed breaks and stretched out the time a little bit between breaks. Now, he can often stay for most of a party.
Empathy works much the same way. Sometimes when we look at the surface, we may not see it. It is there if we have the empathy to look a little harder. Often, Peter has so much concern he becomes very stressed. When he was little we were in a store and I heard a baby cry several departments away. Peter clapped his hands over his ears and asked, “Did I make the baby cry?” We couldn’t even see the baby, but he was worried that the baby was sad and also quite worried he had made it happen. I told Peter that he had not done anything to upset the baby, but it was nice he was worried. Nowadays, Peter has made it his mission to make crying babies laugh. Peter, who has a hard time meeting new people, will run toward a crying baby to make funny faces. He usually returns proudly saying he helped make the baby stop crying.
As Peter has grown, his empathy has become more recognizable. The week before Christmas he asked his sisters when they were going to pick presents to send to the children in the hospital, which we have done for a couple of years. Charlotte had reminded me already, so when Peter reminded us, we jumped on it. They all went to the website and looked at what the hospital was requesting.
Peter decided he would help a boy since he was a boy. He also decided that since he helped a baby last year, this year he would choose a gift for a pre-schooler. At the end though, he convinced Charlotte that as a group they should also get blankets for a baby because being warm would make a baby happy.
Peter is starting to try to help others in the house as well. On Christmas Eve, I was out early picking up a friend at the airport. When I returned, Peter asked if I had had any breakfast. I said I did not have a chance. He said, “Then I will make you toast.” The next thing I knew I had toast with butter.
I am not sure we will ever know the answer to the why question in Newtown, but let’s hope we can put to rest the question of empathy.