There is a commonly held belief in society that people with autism lack empathy. Every time I hear this statement I wonder if they have met my daughter.
I am raising a child diagnosed with autism who actually struggles with TOO MUCH EMPATHY.
Here is what it is like:
A few months ago I received a call from the office at my daughter’s school. Due to her autism my daughter struggles with huge anxiety and selective mutism. The school were calling to say my daughter was very upset but they could not work out why. I went down to the school expecting her to have been injured or perhaps bullied. Neither of these were true. My daughter was highly distressed in school because she had witnessed her friend fall over in the playground and cut herself. Long after her friend had had her wound cleaned up, dressed and returned to the classroom, my little girl was still crying for her friend. She later told me she felt as if her own leg had been cut and worried that her friend may have still been in pain. She took on another persons pain and tried to carry that for them. That is the deepest sort of empathy you can ever get.
Prior to this a few weeks before she had walked home from school with me very quietly and deep in thought. She looked like a child who had been in trouble at school that day and who was carrying the burden of guilt. Since she is a child who would never once consider breaking any rules I was naturally worried why she was so downcast. She spent the entire night withdrawn until at bedtime she broke down in tears in my arms. Another child had been moved down the behaviour chart to red that day and her tender heart was utterly broken for them. She truly felt every emotion you would have expected had it been herself it had happened to. She was disappointed, angry, upset and confused. She had this huge amount of stress on her shoulders that didn’t even belong to her yet she had no means of taking any of it away. Despite the crime not being her doing she was determined to punish herself for the wrong doing of another person. As admirable and self sacrificing as that is it is so unhealthy for any 8 year old to bear.
My daughter with autism takes everything to heart. She feels the pain of others like it has been done directly to herself. If someone shouts at anyone and she hears it she feels that voice piecing her fragile self worth like they were shouting directly at her. She takes on blame that is not hers. If I have her at the doctors and someone sneezes she feels responsible and begs me to make them better.
It is harder to live with a child who has too much empathy than not enough. Why? Because you can teach a child to understand the pain of others but it is so much harder to teach them to let the pain of others go when it does not belong to them. You can teach children to care but how do you teach them to stop caring when they care too much?
Having an over empathetic child on the autism spectrum means living with a perfectionist. You see she not only needs to be perfect for herself to prevent disapproval from others but she also feels she has to be perfect for everyone else too so that everyone around her is happy, safe and well.
The consequences of that are mental health issues, low self esteem and a vulnerability that worries me as a parent so much.
It is vitally important that professionals understand this in order to help my daughter and others like her. Over empathy is so misunderstood and ignored but is is real and it is very concerning.
Everyone who meets my daughter comments on her caring and loving nature. As a parent I am so proud of her and amazed at her incredible innate natural ability to reach out and empathise with others but I also worry she takes this to a level that is very unhealthy.
Could you imagine a nurse who feels the pain of every patient she treats? Or a teacher who breaks down every time a child in her class gets something wrong? Or a check out assistant who feels such empathy for every customer they want to pay for everything themselves?
My child’s future depends on professionals and myself helping her. With so much emphasis on the fact people with autism LACK empathy rather than having TOO MUCH empathy sadly I have a battle on my hands for support.
I thought raising a daughter with autism would be difficult but I had no idea how hard it would be to raise a daughter with autism who also struggles with too much empathy.