Emma’s friend, Charlie was upset yesterday. No one knew what was wrong or why he was so sad. However Emma went over to Charlie and comforted him. These are the kinds of things parents are always pleased to hear. As our children grow older, we come to expect such displays of empathy, even questioning our children when they do not respond this way.
In 1985 Simon Baron-Cohen developed a theory he called mindblindness, suggesting that children with autism have an impaired ability to make sense of others and their own feelings. He has since amended mindblindness to E-S theory (empathizing-systemizing theory.) Many people, when confronted with an autistic person’s inability to acknowledge or respond appropriately to their emotional state, assume that person does not care.
Before Emma was diagnosed, I learned of a friend’s death and was crying. Nic ran over and immediately asked what was wrong and why was I crying, while Emma continued to look at a book. At the time I thought she was more interested in her book or perhaps didn’t notice I was upset, but I remember feeling a certain uneasiness about, what I believed was, her lack of empathy. As I have read more about autism and the problems in reading people’s emotions, I see her non-responsiveness as an inability to make sense of my emotional state rather than indifference. As Emma grows older, she has become increasingly curious about emotions of all kinds.
“Rip Good Night Moon, make Becky angry. No you cannot rip Good Night Moon!” Emma has said, referring to something that happened well over a year ago at her school. One of Emma’s favorite books is “The Way I Feel.” A book describing emotions with illustrations reflecting those feelings. When Emma’s brother Nic is upset Emma, much to Nic’s annoyance, will attempt to make sense of Nic’s upset. “Nicky’s crying. Nicky wants to go on the carousel,” Emma will say. Or “Nicky’s angry. Nicky doesn’t want to go to bed.” Emma will apply her own reasons for being sad or angry with things that make her feel those things and becomes confused when we explain that Nic is upset or angry about something entirely different. Still, she is doing her best to make sense of what she is seeing. She will almost always try to comfort Nic, even if she has come to incorrect conclusions regarding the reasons for his feelings.
For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to: Emma’s Hope Book