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.

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39 Responses to “Can Emotional Overload Look Like a Lack of Empathy? Yes.”

  1. bjforshaw says:

    Thank you, Tara, for such an insightful and informative article. You describe your son’s emotional responses very clearly and make the point that people misinterpret him because they have not made the effort to get to know him and understand him. I hope those who persist in the false assumption that autistic people have no empathy will read this and take heed.

  2. Bob Castleman says:

    Great article. I’m high functioning ASD. This description mirrors my experience much more closely than the “unfeeling automaton” model that seems to pervade many professional’s conceptualization of autism.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Thanks so much for your response. It comforts me to know that what I have observed resonates with you.

  3. Alienhippy says:

    Thank you Tara,
    As an adult on the spectrum I know that I care deeply for others and it hurts me to see people in pain or upset. Sometimes the feelings are so intense I do shutdown. My daughter also loves Wall.E, she is diagnosed with ASD, she is 11 too. Recently the school put a film on in class about the rain forest and she couldn’t handle it at all because she saw animals dying. They had to take her to another class.
    I know that I empathise with the hurts of others and so do all the other members of my family who are on the spectrum. We just don’t show it in the ways that we are expected to. It doesn’t mean we don’t care or we don’t have feelings. I think we feel even more deeply because our sensory actually feels the pain. I didn’t realise that it doesn’t hurt other people physically to cry because it’s all I have ever known. I believe that we on the spectrum have to block it sometimes out of self preservation.
    Thank you for sharing your post. I found it very insightful.
    Love and hugs. xx :)

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Again, it comforts me to think that as an adult you can relate to much of what I have observed. I’m really glad that, like my son, your daughter sounds like she has teachers that understand her. Sounds like our kids have much in common. They would possibly make great friends. :-)

  4. Sophia Sol says:

    Wow that worded exactly what Ive noticed about my 5-year old son!
    As an Asperger myself I can also identify with the shut-down when emotions become too strong, thus assumed to be cold at heart. Im gonna print this out for his father and grandparents to read, not everyone understands him like I do and its hard to be taken seriously, oddly enough.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Wow. You should be the resident expert in the family! I hope my words help then. Good luck ! :-)

  5. Emily says:

    This description is so accurate for me. I have always felt a painful and completely overwhelming amount of empathy, even for inanimate objects (in which case the empathy was obviously projected, but still…) A few months ago (I’m 26), I said I wasn’t going to write with a pen because it had a stupid tip, and then I apologized to the pen because I didn’t want it to feel bad, and I told it I would write with it next time. If I threw a stuffed animal during a meltdown as a teenager I would cuddle it afterwards and apologize profusely and tell it how much I loved it.

    My default assumption is that everyone and everything is sensitive (even if I obviously know better, as with the pen…the verdict is still out on stuffed animals). I am overly cautious in my dealings with people because I’m so worried about upsetting them. And being witness (either visually or just with knowledge) to anything being harmed or suffering is just too much for me. I’m vegan and even feel bad about eating certain vegetables sometimes because a plant had to die for me, or had to have pieces of itself stolen away. Funny you mentioned Wall-E actually, because I felt SO BAD for him when I saw it, but I felt like I wasn’t allowed to say so because I was already in my 20s, and what girl in her 20s is on the verge of tears over an animated robot?

    I used to shut down VERY often as a result of emotional overload – that “completely gone” look. I still do, but I’m able to manage not to go that deep into shutdown when I’m around other people. But it’s like a lot of other things with being autistic – it hasn’t gotten easier; I’ve just gotten better at hiding it, so I’m not entirely sure that it’s a good thing. I hope your son is able to keep his emotions at a manageable level at some point, but I don’t hope that he just learns to hide it. Thankfully he has a very understanding mother who is in tune with him, so I have no doubt you will be a great asset to him along his journey. Thanks for writing!

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Emily, thank you for your kind words. :-)

      There is an aspect of your response that has intrigued me for years. My son is so completely obsessed with letters and numbers (hyperlexia). He is completely sympathetic towards them. He used to print them and cut them out and put them to bed with him. One day he came up to my husband with a paper cut out number and said “Hi there Graeme, nice to meet you.” To which my husband replied “How ya going number 14?” My son looked up and quick as a flash said “Hey, how did you know my name?”

      At times he refers to inanimate objects (usually of his interest) and speaks to their “feelings” as though they were alive. In light of what you have said, could this be an extension of his super sensitivity? How does that relate to young children with soft toys. Is there an emotional development in attachment. Now you have me thinking. Best I do some more reading. ;-)

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  6. Talya says:

    Have you heard of Temple Grandin? She has a career teaching people how to treat animals, based on her using her autism to understand them deeply. May have dramatically changed how autism is seen here in the US, too. Your piece definitely made me think of her work. She has written a few books about herself and her work that may be interesting for you and your son to read and process together.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Talya, I am familiar with her work but haven’t read as much as I would like to. Sounds like I should re-familiarize myself with her latest efforts.

      Thanks

  7. Aspie Mom says:

    We may be less focussed on people than NT’s, but we definitely have empathy.
    We are missing the “universal” rules about how it is expressed.

    I am interested in your interest in hyperlexia, which also runs in our families. Do you suppose that’s why so many autistics can read and write the moment they get an iPad? Presumably if their family thought “there was nothing going on in there”, they have not been fully taught to write.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Aspie Mom,

      I enjoyed reading your response. Even when my son looks like he is not focused on people sometimes he is. Sometimes after explaining something I get zero acknowledgement and yet when I ask him if he heard what I said he will repeat it back to me. I hear myself saying “So you were listening.” Atypical responses that are often mislabeled as cold, aloof, detached and rude give people the wrong impression. I think you are right. He most definitely lacks the “universal” rules of expression.

      As for the hyperlexia, it is a whole other story.
      http://makingroomasd.wordpress.com/2011/07/12/he-isnt-learning-through-reading-how-i-discovered-hyperlexia/

      I think there are a number of children out there with autism/hyperlexia that due to a verbal language deficit are more capable than people realize. They are being marginalized because the ‘professionals’ are not astute or knowledgeable enough to recognize their abilities.

  8. Julia says:

    Excellent points. When I get very stressed I also even become very sensitive to insects and plants that I normally am successful at blocking out. I am 45 years old and have had much practice at acting like I do not care, but just like how my autistic symptoms become more severe when I am stressed, so also my sensitivity to anything living becomes very obvious to me and difficult to hold in.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Julia

      My hope is that one day my son will be able to articulate sentiments like those you have expressed. I find myself a detective observing my own son for clues to the puzzle of his emotions and thoughts. It will be a happy day when he can tell me and make my guesswork redundant. :-)

      Thanks for your comment.

  9. [...] often not understood by people who are not used to dealing with Autism or Aspergers.Embedded Link Can Emotional Overload Look Like a Lack of Empathy? Yes. | Autism and Empathy Can Emotional Overload Look Like a Lack of Empathy? Yes. By Tara Kaberry on October 28th, 2011. I [...]

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Thanks for the repost. I hope it makes those who are not exposed to this sensitivity in people with autism think a little more outside the box. :-)

  10. Rebecca says:

    I am in tears. Your post resonates so with me. I am an adult who has always clearly been ‘different’ but never diagnosed (obviously high-functioning enough that no one thought to). It took me years to realize I am hyper-sensitive. Even longer to realize I am in the autism spectrum. And now wonder if I am also mildly hyperlexic.

    One of the things that has made me question whether I am truly autistic is the whole ‘emotionally flat’ part – because I am anything BUT. I feel DEEPLY – I just don’t often express it outwardly. Partly because I don’t know how to ‘appropriately’, but also because I am so OVERWHELMED by the intensity of my feelings. It is a bit easier when the feelings are my own, since I have some understanding of their origins and reasons. But when those feelings are from others, particularly any kind of pain, it can be more than I can handle. Until I learned how to ‘shield’ myself (hard to describe: I visualize it as a force field I surround myself with) from the assault on my senses, my typical response – out of self-preservation – was to withdraw. Thank you for letting me know I am not alone.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Rebecca,

      Now it’s my turn to get choked up. ;-) Your comments reflected so beautifully an intense desire to understand yourself and your place in the world. If you were my son I would say this to you: Regardless of label, regardless of how the majority of the population function, remember always that you are unique and cannot be pigeon holed into any category. ANY LABEL EXISTS ONLY TO SERVE YOU. The label is required in society to gain understanding from others and services to assist. Beyond that it is mute.

      You are definitely not alone. Less alone that I imagined. The responses to this article are more numerous and more heartfelt than I ever anticipated !

      Thanks for sharing :-)

  11. brenda says:

    Tara thanks for sharing your story. This sound alot like my son at that age. He is now 14. He has gotten better with his reactions to others emotions. Even though he does still have that lack of responding to different emotions at times, it’s just not as often as it once was. For those of the younger kids on the spectrum one way I helped John with his eratioin was to ask him just ike Tara did how specific events made him feel and continuously telling him it was ok to show his feelings about things. For a very long time he had no feelings about anything. I have a funny story for you all. New years eve a few years back a friend of ours son was staying with us. He was 19 at the time and we were kidding with another friend they asked us if we were drinking in celebration of the holiday. I scarcasticaly yes oh boy yeah we’re getting drunk off of dr pepper. Well my own son was in the same room when i said that, he went around telling people me and daniel got drunk that night on dr pepper lol. It’s a real good thing his case manager knows me and knows he was just repeating what I said lol. But thats why we have to watch what we say around him even playing because he takes things so literally. But thats just him and I love him just the way he is. Just now he got caramel form the store and when he got in a game on the internet first thing he todl everyone was hi and he has caramel lol. His diagnoses are
    pdd/nos, a.d.d and o.c.d.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Brenda

      This all sounds very familiar. My son is taking things a little less literally as he gets older but when he was younger I once said to him “Turn around and come here”. I should have known better .. yes.. he did a full 360 degrees before walking to me. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry ;-)

      But that literal nature also impacts his emotions. When he hears someone in the playground say “I’m going to kill you” he takes that literally and disturbs him immensely. This is another variable that affects his ability to cope and remains largely hidden to most people.

      Sarcasm was lost of him in the early years but we have been very explicit in our teaching it to him. Now when we are being sarcastic or having a lend of him he will always say “You’re joking aren’t you.” This still makes me smile.

      Thanks for sharing :-)

  12. Leith says:

    As a child in the long ago, way before anything was known about Asperger’s, I was unusually sensitive. I remember going with my class to the movies. The “Three Stooges” were one of the features and they were doing things like hammering through a person’s shoes while he was wearing them, ironing somone’s pants with one of those big industrial irons while the person was wearing them… I cried and cried and think I was eventually taken out.

    As a mother, I had terrible post-natal depression, fuelled by the crying of the baby. I was told I had to leave her to “cry herself out” but I couldn’t bear to. She seems to be OK now, a mother herself!

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Leith

      I guess I too am oversensitive. I can empathize with you on watching shows like that. Even Wipeout makes me cringe ! Funniest home videos at times is anything but funny IMHO.

      I’m sure in many ways being the parent with sensitivities is helpful. Being aware of their feelings can only help you to make more informed decisions. I would be more concerned for children whose parents never registered any discomfort in their child.

      Thanks for your comment

  13. Jayn says:

    Personally, I find that expressing emotions has to be a conscious choice for me (unless they’re super strong, as you said). Since the default is to repress them, that results in me often not saying what I’m feeling when it matters, and appearing more emotional than I really am when I do remember to flip the switch. It doesn’t help that I have an instinctive tendency to not rock the boat, which results in a literal inability to say what I’m feeling at times. I broke into tears once because I couldn’t bring myself to ask my husband to stop for food on a road trip. I was hungry, and frustrated because I’d assumed he would, and then kicking myself for not saying anything despite my hunger, followed by anger at the world that taught me to never ask for anything. But there was such a strong mental block that I couldn’t express my needs in a healthy way. (Oh, and my husband still doesn’t know about it) Sometimes the only reason people notice how I’m feeling is because I get so upset I start to cry–more often, they just go on blissfully unaware while I’m desperately wishing that they would notice that something is wrong over here.

    TLDR: It isn’t that I don’t have emotions. I just can’t express them as a natural part of interacting with people. I have to choose to do so, and when it matters I find I can’t make that choice.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Jayn,

      I understand exactly what you are saying particularly in the context of observing my son. I see him exist in that default setting. I can literally SEE him coping. He is so wrapped up in keeping it all together that he struggles to feel anything else. I also see that when he is happy and centred that he exists less in that setting. Those are times he says things that I don’t expect. Like, “Did you have a good day?” Normally, he is not in a place that allows him to step outside his sensory issues and connect with those typical ‘feelings’ that others take totally for granted. I also see the other side as you described. Flicking the switch into emotion that seems exaggerated or out of alignment with the situation. I have seen him cry uncontrollably about something that bamboozles the rest of the family. I can picture in my head my daughter raising her eyebrows in confusion. I have seen him kiss me repetitively in sheer joy. But as much as I love him.. 73 kisses is probably a bit much.

      It’s almost as though he dams his emotions but when that wall gives way he has no control over how much spills out. Thank you because that became so clear when reading your response. If I were your husband I would possibly be a little confused. Have you thought about stealing away in a quiet moment and sharing these revelations with him?

      Thanks for your insights.

  14. Cathy Cleland says:

    Tara Kaberry you are an amazing women and I love and admire your strength. When so many families struggle to take the time to understand and help their children with any form of social, mental or physical disability you have gone beyond and as such your Son is so blessed to have you as his Mother. Thank you for sharing your stories and blessing the lives of so many others and giving them hope to be a little more patient, a little more understanding and to have a little more empathy not just for the children but also for their parents. God bless you and others like you, YOU are a choice Mother.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Cathy

      You are my friend. You have to say that or you’re struck off the Christmas list. Now if I had said that to Darien …. he may have got upset. ;-)

      <3

  15. aspieside says:

    Thank you for sharing such wonderful stories. My son really struggles with his emotions too. I agree that he gets overwhelmed with emotion. You really explained it very well-thank you for helping to educate others!

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Thanks for commenting. It’s nice to know there are other children out there that present similarly to my son. :-)

  16. Kim says:

    Tara thank you for putting your observations into words. I find them to be so accurate in terms of my own experiences of emotional overload and shutdown, and also what I observe of my son (age 11). I have always been told that I am oversensitive on the one hand, and that I lack empathy on the other. In reality, I feel things so deeply that I tend to disconnect alltogether so that I can be “appropriate” when I am out in the world. It is only when I am alone, or in private with others, that I am able to really feel. (I am 40, so I have a lot of practice with this). In terms of the projecting feelings onto objects, I too used to feel terrible if I were to drop one of my stuffed animals as a kid, or kept some on my bed and put others on the floor, because I didn’t want some of them to “feel bad”. My son is convinced, without a doubt, that his favorite toy has feelings, and loves him. So – thank you for putting your thoughts into words as it has been validating for me, and has generated a wonderful discussion. -Kim

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Kim

      It’s now more obvious to me than ever that there needs to be more discussion about the relationship between the intensity of emotions and the necessity of ‘shutting down.’

      Rachel is going a long way to shed light on the misconception that, although ‘shut down’ at times, people on the spectrum are in fact never lacking emotion or empathy. I hope for a ground swell of interest and focus on the misunderstood emotions of those on the spectrum. Where accurate information is lacking unfortunately assumption fills the gap and that can only be of detriment to those that struggle with autism.

      I am grateful that so many people took the time to comment on this thread including yourself. It has strengthened my resolve and gone a long way to confirming many of my suspicions. I only hope that one day my son will be as articulate and insightful as yourself and those from previous posts so that I may hear it directly from him. I make decisions in his best interest based on what I can piece together from what I observe and I want so much to be able to understand how he truly feels.

      Your son is indeed blessed to have a parent who understands how he functions so clearly. For those of us that don’t it is reassuring to think that we may be on the right track.

      Thanks for your insights. :-)

  17. Genevieve says:

    This made me teary. THANK YOU for understanding. How many children with Autism are like your son? I don’t know, but I can tell you that THIS adult with Asperger Syndrome is (at least when it comes to emotional overload and expression of feelings), and always has been. I can’t read his mind, but it seems to describe my husband as well (he has Asperger’s too). And it sounds almost identical to our son, who is about to turn 2. He’s too young to diagnose, but he has quite a few signs of some kind of ASD and therefore he is taking place in a study aimed at helping kids with learning disabilities or ASDs as early as possible if they have signs of any kind of such thing. According to his recent evaluation the doctor says she has “concern of moderate to severe Autism”.

    He barely speaks, and SEEMS to almost have no interest in other children (we know better)- except when they are upset or hurt. One striking example that comes to mind is when we went to the Aquarium with a friend and her toddler daughter a few months ago. They have been around each other quite a few times, over almost a year, but he has never played with her and has hardly shown any attention to her. After a couple hours we got ready to leave and she started crying because she didn’t want to go. He immediately turned toward her and said her name (which he had only said maybe once when I was talking about her to him when we were home alone). He was very distressed. He didn’t calm down until she did. We spent time with them for SO many hours, over so many months, and he’d NEVER said hi to her, much less said her name. to her directly.

    We saw her again recently, just a couple weeks ago, and as usual he didn’t show her any direct attention, and he definitely didn’t speak or wave. But she was all over him, the little cutie, trying to give him hugs and kisses. He just stepped away. After a while I realized that even though he wasn’t reciprocating in the usual way…he was following her around. She would get bored with trying to hug someone who didn’t want it, and would run off to play somewhere and he’d be RIGHT there, never closer than about 2 feet, but never much farther. Then after quite a while of that, he walked up to her while her back was turned and tried to put his head on her shoulder. He WAS interested in being around her and showing love and friendship, just in HIS way- the way he understands.

    And he’s not just like this with her. He gets concerned about strangers; like this one kid who was throwing a tantrum in the park a couple months ago. He hadn’t seemed to notice the kid before, but once he started screaming my son made a “uh?!” noise and ran toward him with the saddest face. Or people who are fighting or sad on TV. He gets very upset and cries. And when we visit my best friend and her (VERY rambunctious, LOUD) kids- who practically ONLY communicate via screaming LOL- he gets REALLY upset. He has crying fits JUST like you describe.

    It can be hard to describe or explain these things to people who don’t live it everyday, so I just wanted to say thank you for doing such a great job of it in this article. I also wanted you to know that others understand and go through the same things.

    Thank you for bringing attention to this. I will definitely be sharing this article with my friends and loved ones.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Genevieve

      Thanks for your kinds words. I think there is a real emotional indication of autism in toddlers. Dropping to the ground and not coping with someone’s harsh tone of voice is definitely not ‘typical’ and yet I have never heard anyone say that it could be an indication of autism. Panicked crying also. I have certainly heard a lot of studies that talk about head size and facial features and many other proposed characteristics that never seem to gain momentum but I would love to see a survey that asked parents to reflect on the emotions of very young children with autism.

      I can relate to the differences you have noticed with your son and his bonding to a friend. I have noticed with my son that for the longest time he was more than happy to parallel play. When we introduced the trampoline and board games he had structured reasons to play. It wasn’t typical imaginative play like that of his peers but it was beautiful interaction that was meaningful for him. He still likes his interactions to be reasonably structured but he has such a love for his friends which is undeniable. He is not shy about it either. In fact I found a letter in notes on my iphone yesterday that said “I love my friends.” with a list of all of his classmates.

      Warms a mothers heart. :-)
      Thanks for your response.

  18. Kim says:

    Tara you have exactly described my 19 year old son who has a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome.

    Over the years of watching him I have come to the conclusion that far from having no empathy he has too much empathy for others and didn’t know how to handle it. He has earned many community awards for his caring of others and of animals. My son is also a singer and poet (now song writer) and the emotion in his voice when singing has always blown me away and now the words in his poems and songs are absolutely amazing.

    My son’s father is the same as I learnt to watch his facial expressions over the years and not really listen to his words.

    Thank you Tara for sharing. Recently my son and I were in a police station and a domestic fight broke out next to us and I found my son hidden under a desk when everything had calmed down. My son is now over 6 feet tall.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      Kim

      This sound exactly like how my son would react. The flight response is strong. I would be called to school and find my son in exactly that place. Thankfully, he is now coping very well with school. How wonderful that your son can express himself creatively and direct his sensitivities toward something so worthwhile. I hope my son also finds a creative outlet as he matures.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  19. Emily says:

    Just saw that now. It appears I’m not alone… :)