Empathy and Autism: Can My Boy Connect?

 February 2004

What groups of people are most notorious for their lack of empathy? Racists? Terrorists? Religious fanatics?

A mew scientific theory adds another group to this list: people with autism.

A much-publicized recent book by Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, The Essential Difference, offers the idea that, different as people on the autism spectrum are from one another, they are united by a common thread: They can’t understand what others are feeling.

This, so the theory goes, is not really so bad, for lack of empathy is balanced by a sometimes wonderful ability to focus, systematize, memorize and think abstractly. Autism isn’t as mysterious as we think, this idea suggests. It is, among other things we don’t yet understand, an exaggerated form of male aloofness. Think of the distracted husband on the couch, beer in hand, pretending to listen to his wife while watching basketball on TV; now take this scene to a bizarre extreme and you have something close to autism.

I’m no psychiatrist and have to basis for assessing this theory on its scientific merits. But I am an authority on one 17-year-old person with severe low-functioning autism, my son Walker. He can’t converse, play a game, sit still, tie his shoes. He does every mainline autisitic behavior in the book: waves his hands and stares at reflected, shouts certain words and phrases over and over. Rewinds his audiotapes until they break. He even does classic stuff that fits the theory: He seems to have been born with a global positioning system in his head, which he consults whenever we walk through the city. Without speaking, he will tug my ar: Today we go this way, Dad. He looks up at apartment buildings, down at the street signs, over at the lake. No—he pulls me in another direction—this way! But there is one quality he has in such abundance that it seems almost to define him: empathy. Bouncing on his therapy ball, his throne in our dining room, he knows his family’s hidden feelings not matter how well we mask them.

Woe to the brother or mother or father who passes him with a tense head and heavy heart, for Walker will whine or shout his displeasure.

Blessed be he who passes in a spirit of good cheer, for he will be rewarded tenfold with smiles and giggles and sparkling eyes.

In fact much of the time Walker’s “autism” seems like a strategy he’s devised to protect himself from the emotion he, the Emotion Autocrat of the house, senses too keenly everywhere around him. Since he has so much trouble understanding and producing language, his responses can sometimes be misread—tragically misread—as an unwillingness to engage emotionally. His autism is complex, up to now relentlessly resistant to explanation. But he’s no stranger to empathy.

Unfortunately, when he was much younger, his mother and I did not always catch on to

This depth of feeling in him. Since he never nodded “yes” and “no,” much less enunciated those words in any consistent way, even some of his essential character traits tended to stay under our radar. They were only revealed in dramatic blips that slowly enabled us to see him in a new way.

One such moment came when he was 4 years old. I had just come home from three days in the hospital undergoing tests for chest pain. The tests showed that I had experience of those Middle-aged Dad Hypochondria Alerts: My heart was fine; I was nuts. When I walked in our front door (as far as Walker knew, back from the dead) he took my hand and pulled me over to the couch. He got out a copy of Pinocchio, one of those Disney books a child reads along with an audiotape, and turned the pages until he got to the place where he wanted me to read to him.

It was the passage about Pinocchio saving his father from the whale.

I stopped in the middle of a sentence and stared at him, amazed. It was my odd, silent 4-year-old’s articulate way of telling his father of his love and concern. Since then, Ellen and I have read his strange behavior in the light of that day: The one who feels fare more deeply than he lets on, who signals his thoughts and feeling in unconventional, but still very telling ways.

A common scene: A family friend steps into our house and greets him. “Hi, Walker,” she says. “I like your haircut.” Walker instantly puts his index fingers in his ears, his other fingers over his eyes, his thumbs over his mouth.

He stops bouncing on his ball and looks down at the floor. If the visitor then walks away, she may silently conclude that the autistic boy—the empathy-averse stranger to emotion—is lost in a world of his own. But I    f she stoops, bends and peers up into Walker’s face, she will detect the wide grin and blushing face of a boy radiating pleasure, aching to charm his friend’s socks off, if only he knew how.

Well-meaning theories that read Walker’s problems communicating as a lack of empathy are dangerous: They promote a stereotype of autistic people as an alien, unlikable bunch that, in the end, can be written off.

But the Walker Hughes I know is much like other children in autism’s grip—not an interesting robot, but a brave young man fighting to connect with the people he loves.