Can Emotional Overload Look Like a Lack of Empathy? Yes.
I have watched my son’s emotional development for a decade with a sense of curiosity and fascination. His atypical emotional responses have piqued my interest. After years of keen observation, I would question anyone who suggested he lacked empathy as a result of his autism. Even prior to his diagnosis, when he was a toddler, I noticed the intensity of his reactions to the emotions of others.
I even suspect that his intense sensitivities and resulting withdrawal looks like a lack of emotion or disassociation from people or situations. I remember vividly his first haircut. Initially, his distress was within what I would call “normal limits.” After a little while, it escalated. I relayed my concerns to the hairdresser, who assured me that it was common for children to cry for their first visit. I felt uncomfortable, but not wanting to seem overprotective, I waited a while longer. His cry started to sound panicked. Just as I decided to intervene, his crying subsided, and I saw his eyes glaze over. He had a vacant look that scared me, and I realized I was too late. Just then the hairdresser commented, “Look, he has settled down.” I knew that he had not settled down. I knew that he had shut down. I vowed to always trust my instincts after that. I still feel a sense of guilt for not protecting him in that moment, even though I was just beginning to work out his unusual sensory issues. I started to notice that his heightened sensitivities were impacting him everyday. He was demonstrating an intensity of all his emotions — the most debilitating of which was fear.
Another memory that springs to mind when thinking about his unusual emotional reaction to others happened during a visit home to family. My husband and I, with our two small children, arranged to meet family members at the zoo — a great way to catch up with a large extended family and give the many cousins something fun to do. As we walked, my sister-in-law struggled to keep her five boys in check and resorted to yelling intermittently. With every outburst, my two-year-old son would drop to the ground and cry uncontrollably. It was a while before I would make this connection. I watched time and again this extreme reaction to his auntie’s harsh outcries. I tried my best to console him and help him to understand that he was not in trouble, to no avail. What I didn’t know was that he had virtually no receptive language, and so he didn’t understand my consoling words. What he did understand was painfully apparent. He was disturbed by the raw emotion that arose from these outbursts, emotion that affected him. This was not consistent with what I later understood to be a criterion for an autism diagnosis — “a lack of social or emotional reciprocity.”
Classic Moderate Autism was his final diagnosis just before he turned three years old. The years since his diagnosis have been a whirlwind, a crazy ride with heartbreaking lows and euphoric highs. We became accustomed to engaging in educational and biological interventions and IEPs, amongst other efforts, in an attempt to provide him every opportunity. Still there are countless examples I can think of to describe his sensitivity towards others that defy the very label that attempts to define him — the same sensitivity that existed prior to any intervention.
He attends church every Sunday. Crying babies have always distressed him. When he was old enough to articulate his concerns, he would ask why they were crying. He would ask if they were okay. Even with massive language deficits, he was able to express concern for them. Admittedly, the sound was possibly an assault on his senses, but he also appeared deeply worried about their distress.
Currently at school, when the teacher is speaking with students who are misbehaving, he struggles to keep his composure; without fail, he asks if he is in trouble. Once he has established that he is not, he will often suggest ways for the students in question to redeem themselves. The teacher has said that it unsettles him so badly that it warrants her sending him on a fictitious errand so that she can speak to the class without distressing him. He is overly sensitive to the plight of others even when it is not directly related to him.
Recently, he was watching a football game on television with his dad. His favorite footballer was injured and was taken off the ground on a stretcher. My husband and I looked over to see his eyes well up with tears. He turned to his dad and asked if the player was going to be okay. He was concerned. Admittedly, he was also sad that he might not see him for the rest of the season. But when I queried him, he said that he was “sad because he hurt himself.”
Darien loves to watch cartoon movies. His favorite is Wall.E, a clean-up robot who is left isolated on earth and meets and falls in love with a robot called E.V.E. I asked him why he likes this movie. He answered, “Wall.E is sad because he has no love. But E.V.E. comes and then he has a friend. Wall.E loves E.V.E.” He identifies with the robot’s loneliness and feels happy when the robot meets a friend who dispels that loneliness and makes him happy.
At eleven years old, he still struggles with language, which makes it difficult for him to express the intricacies of his emotions. When I was thinking about writing this piece, I decided to ask him a few questions based on an imaginary scenario. I asked him to imagine that I was badly hurt in a car accident and that I was in hospital. I asked him how he would feel if the doctor said I might die. He replied that he would be sad. I asked him to imagine that his sister was sitting in a chair in hospital crying. I asked why he thought she was crying. He answered that she would be sad that I was hurt. I asked what he would do if he saw her crying. He said “Give her a hug to make her feel better. I would say don’t worry, I will make you feel better.”
I remember him making a comment before we moved to the other side of the country. It reflects his awareness of the feelings of other people. He said “My kids (an affectionate term for the students in his class) are gonna miss me when I leave.” I assured him that they would. He revealed to me that he would miss them, too.
What I have observed is that if his sensitivity is too overwhelming, then his responses are not typical. For instance, the day we moved, his best girl friend visited to say how much she would miss him. Instead of responding in much the same fashion, he fidgeted with something he was holding in his hand and looked quite disconnected. One could assume he didn’t care. When I asked him later, he said that he would be sad and would miss her. He appeared uncomfortable with the overwhelming emotion and struggled to respond in kind. Thankfully, his friend knew him well and didn’t assume this reaction was a reflection of how he felt about her.
So how many other children with autism are like my son? I suspect that this oversensitivity resulting in shutdown is common. I also suspect it is not easy to research. Perhaps that is why we are bombarded with theory of mind and atypical response studies that would have us believe that our children lack empathy.
I know my son. It is dangerous to make assumptions about his feelings based on his responses. His responses are not typical and thus belie his feelings. Even though he struggles to comprehend situations due to auditory processing difficulties and confusing social nuances, he shows a depth of emotion that touches people who meet him. His recent merit certificate from school, “For making us all smile,” is not a trite comment. His naïve and uncomplicated view of the world, and his timid and kind heart, really does make everyone smile.
About the Author: Prior to raising her children, Tara worked as an Early Childhood Teacher. Her husband was previously in the Air Force, which required her family to move around every couple of years. He is currently working as an Engineer in Project Management. They have two children — a 12-year-old daughter who was pronounced gifted at three years old, and an 11-year-old son with classic moderate autism, diagnosed when he was almost three years old. Prior to his diagnosis, Tara was enrolled in a psychology degree program that she put on hold to work with him. Now that he is in upper elementary school, she has returned to study in order to qualify as an Educational Psychologist. Her son also has hyperlexia and as such, Tara would like to further her studies in this area. She and her family currently live in Queensland, Australia.