Where Empathy in Autism Runs Deepest

My daughter has become a bit of a budding photographer, taking a knack to staging, shooting, and recording on her little digital camera.

It’s an adorable and sweet thing to watch as she catches these candids and slices of life; with this being a non-smartphone camera, it’s more observational and less “selfie-focused” (guilty).

What gets me are the videos. She’ll narrate and create these “shaky-cam” montages that hone in on goings-on in the family, beginning with the phrase “Hi, this is me, Madeline.” Already audience-aware — and if you’re following The Life Autistic on YouTube, you’ll see what I’m talking about. 😊

But as with all things digital, she finally had “a moment.”

Inevitably, she discovered that she harnessed both the power create and destroy. After a few too many clicks and menus, she mistakenly deleted a video. It wrecked her poor little heart.

While Mrs. H2 and I assured her that she had the video backed up, Mo remained bereft of consolation.

“But it’s not on my camera anymore,” she cried. “It’s gone and I wanted to watch it on my camera.”

In the moment I was probably too autistically factual and dismissive. It’s on my computer, I thought. It’s not gone. But as I spied her curled up on the cozy chair, sobbing, my heart took a different turn.

Leaning into my “strong-but-gentle dad” mode, I picked her up, cradled all of her nearly 4-foot frame (she’s a tall five year old!), then sat back down with her.

We both cried.

I’m not often as responsively empathetic to where I can both acknowledge and feel things so intently. But I found where those converge strongest in me:

When the sadness is unique.

I’ve been sad before over deleting things. Losing things that I can’t recover. Where I won’t have them in the way I used to enjoy them. Where others looked at me and didn’t understand. Where it wasn’t “normal” to be so upset over something that small.

So in that moment, as my arms wrapped around her, her new sadness profound – I remembered my specific sadnesses of old as well. She didn’t notice the small tear or two, but we spent that 20-second moment in a specifically empathetic embrace.

We autistic folks might have our challenges with empathy. Except when it’s perhaps at its most challenging and maybe misunderstood – it then runs its very deepest.

I’ve learned that my heart responds to misunderstood sadnesses; I’m grateful to be a uniquely empathetic autistic personTo learn more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic here and on YouTube — or follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Twitter / Instagram. Thanks!

The Life Autistic: Can Empathy Be Learned?

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Almost ten years ago, I began my Apple career as an iPhone Advisor.

It was my first customer service job, in a call center, taking phone calls from strangers, and de-escalating people while I solved their technical (and sometimes personal) issues.

I look through all those elements of my job through The Life Autistic lens; frankly, I don’t know how I managed!

The job required a thing that would make or break one’s success.

Empathy.

*gulp*

Of course I knew about empathy. I mean, I had the dictionary definition on hand, along with plenty of analogies to describe what it meant, how it related, why it applied to the work.

How was I supposed to learn something I couldn’t always feel?

I knew I couldn’t be reborn as a natural empath. I didn’t have the capacity to program myself that way for the job.

But I did have my own attributes that would help. Puzzle-solving. Hyper-competitiveness. Pattern recognition. 

I’ll fast forward the story a bit and admit that I didn’t learn empathy.

Instead, I practiced and perfected empathic response. 

It took some doing, being able to listen, hear, and read into the core of customer concerns, to frame the why behind the what of their tech issue. I made it an art, to turn those stated and unstated concerns back into a response that more or less said “I feel ya.” 

Not every situation called for it, and I more than once maybe tried too hard, to my embarrassment. But it didn’t matter.

What did matter is that I had to do it. I wanted to be the best at the job. I could still come in as Hunter and take calls as H2.

It was and still is unusual to me, operating in a language that I don’t often think and rarely feel.

But then, sometimes, people will respond back.

“Exactly – you know what I mean, don’t you?”

“I know, right? You get it.”

“YES! I, you, you understand just what I’m going through.”

And then it’s like . . . I do feel it.

I don’t ‘get’ empathy. Not until I give it first.