Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Empathy Class

The room was full. The desks had been placed in a circle, and everyone’s back was against the wall. A couple of people mentioned that there would be no way to fit in anyone else. Then, the next person arrived. Everyone laughed and moved the desks closer together. Somehow, a space had been created. Each person in the circle had given up an inch or so of protective space and no one, not even the autistic member of the group, found it too uncomfortable. Then it happened again. Corners were discovered to be more useful than assumed; some desks were angled differently. The third late arrival found her desk in the center of the room, but was able to edge a deskless chair into the circle. The lesson passed without comment as we moved on to the topic we’d come to discuss—empathy in autism.

This is a full semester class on the subject of empathy. Autism gets one week, a three hour discussion period, and this is the second year I’ve been invited to join the seminar, to offer a different perspective on the meaning of empathy. Last year, I wrote this post for the class, and then this one in response to it. This year was easier. I’ve had a lot of experience talking about autism over the past 12 months. I’ve become less defensive, more willing to believe that lack of knowledge is not equal to lack of compassion.

Now when I speak to groups of people and encounter the same questions about mercury and Rain Man, epidemics and Autism Speaks, I am far less likely to become agitated. There are many things people just don’t know, and I am privileged to share my views with them. Where else will they hear about Katie McCarron or about the Judge Rotenberg Center? Who will tell them about the Ransom Notes Campaign? These are not the things taught in classrooms. Most people don’t know these stories. They know about Jenny McCarthy. They’ve heard things.

This year, there were several students in the class who have autistic family members. Each of these spoke of the nephew, the sister, the son with pride and respect. They seemed less afraid of me than last year’s students had. One of them helped me find my way out of the building when I appeared to be lost. This was a pleasant experience, though as always I was frustrated by my inability to say the things I wanted to say.

When I think of the differences between this experience and the previous one, it occurs to me that one of the things that has changed my perspective is writing this blog. I can relax a bit knowing that what I could not manage to say in class, I can write here, and invite others to read it. You see, I failed to talk about some of the things I’ve mentioned in this post. And these are all very relevant to empathy and to the reciprocity reading we talked about in the class.

When groups of people are devalued, objectified, treated as less than human, terrible consequences follow. This is why it is important to stop asking the question, “Do autistic people lack empathy?” A better question might be “What are some ways autistic people express empathy?” Or “Do autistic people learn empathy in different ways than non-autistic people do?” Otherwise, there is room for the creeping thought that maybe we are not quite human, or at least of lesser value to our communities.

This is for the Empathy class. If you got the link to this post from your professor, did you take the time to read it, even though this is not required? Because this is what I came to tell you yesterday, on my own time. This is the point of it, really. If you are reading this, you are accommodating a difference. You are reciprocating, visiting me on your time, using the communication strategy that works best for me. This, I think, is empathy in action.

Thank you for coming, then. It seems that just possibly, through minor adjustments, there may be room for everyone after all.


  1. Bev,

    Thank you so much for coming to class the other day! I enjoyed listening to your comments and having you interact with the class.

    I work with children who have behavioral issues and from time to time we will have a child admitted that has autism. One of these children specifically had AS. I loved learning about autism through working with them considering I knew very little before meeting them.

    Thanks again for offering your insight on the discussions in class!


  2. Great post. I liked the analogy about fitting everybody in.

  3. Just wanted to say hi, it's been awhile since I visited. I enjoyed this post though the idea of everyone having to sit closer and closer as the room filled made me feel a bit twitchy! The article was really interesting, I am going to print it off.

  4. Sounds like a great class. Wish I could go.

  5. Bev,
    Thanks so much for joining us in class and sharing your feelings with us. It is so admirable that you took time out of your schedule to share your perspective with us. I now have a better understanding of autism and your explinations added so much to the articles we read for class. I loved your blog and I hope your day is going great!

  6. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your experience with Asperger with our class. As a person with a sibling who has autism, I try to absorb as much information as possible from others with experience. It truly was an honor to meet you!

  7. This is a wonderful post. I especially love the analogy. It is wonderful that more people are understanding each other, including each other, sharing with each other. Thank you for sharing and writing about your experience.

  8. Bev,

    I enjoyed all that you said in the class. Thank you for coming. It meant a lot to me to understand your perspective. I think in understanding Asperger Syndrome we can also understand a part of ourselves. I think that everyone has certain characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder. In saying that I think that individuals who are non-autistic should show individuals who are more reciprocity. I think that reciprocity is the key to having a successful relationship with a individual with Asperger's Syndrome.

    I observe my nephew's actions daily and as I observe him I do not see an a incapable person, but a person that thinks a different way. I see a person who is extraordinary and brings different talents to this world. Thank you for mentioning him in your blog.

    Once again, I enjoyed reading your blog and meeting you.Thank you for your insight and knowledge on Autism. I think that you were best class discussant we have had in the class because you actually have a true perspective on the subject unlike the others who just have the knowledge about it. Thanks!

    Sarah Hall

  9. Bev,

    I had not recognized the wide range of experiences in autisitics before you shared your own with our class. I struggled to understand the course readings about autism and I had many unanswered questions.

    Your openness and generosity, as well as your particular insight, were invaluable. Thank you for helping us see things a little differently. There is no single "correct" perspective.

  10. Bev i just wanted to say thank you for your personal time to come to our class and share with us it must be dificult for you to open your self up like that but the hands on experience is so much bettert han some stuffy professor standing in front of class trying to tell us what it is like to have Asperger's.
    You have also opened my eyes that in many way's we are not unlike in that the enjoyment from life comes from many things not just our "normal" perception of what it should be.

    Thank you


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