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Weight of the World

  • Posted on April 11, 2012 at 8:09 AM

Sometimes I wish Rachel had never drawn my attention to the incendiary issue of Autism and Empathy.  It’s not that I actually prefer ignorance.  It’s just that I have enough to grapple with in trying to understand the ludicrous human phenomena known as prejudice in its most general sense.

How can anyone think that the set “people with autism” fits inside the set “people who lack empathy?”  Why should they come in to the arena with this assumption?  Why should they work so hard to try to prove themselves right through science?  Obviously, they never met my son Willy.

He’s thirteen years old and he carries the weight of the world on his bony little shoulders.  The “autists lack empathy” camp would have you believe that because he is atypical in his social and communication development that he lacks empathy.  Yet, he feels so strongly for others that, if anything, his reactions are inappropriately grand.  Willy’s quick to apologize for the slightest wrong he does, even if that “wrong” was not of his doing nor his responsibility to do.

On the other hand, there’s our fifteen-year-old.  It’s not that he’s not empathetic, but he tends toward the irresponsible.  In short, he’s a teenager.  He lives so much in the moment that he doesn’t consider the consequences until they catch up with him.  By the time they do, he’s often at a loss for how problems got so big while he wasn’t paying attention.  We have to lay it out for him.

Easter Sunday, after a week of blowing off his family and his responsibilities in order to spend time with a friend (or complain about being bored when he wasn’t), things came to a head when our fifteen-year-old announced he was going over to the friend’s house—that he had to.  On Easter Sunday.

Mark’s reaction was explosive.  Brandon’s counter-reaction was equally explosive.  I was downstairs with headphones on when Willy came running to tell me, with tears streaming down his face and sobs heaving his chest, that “Daddy and Brandon are fighting.”

So, I go upstairs, assess the situation, and help put things into perspective for Brandon.  Tears and repentance and forgiveness followed.  All’s well that ends well, right?

Except that wasn’t the end.  Not for Willy.  Willy carried that fight with him throughout the long day, bursting into tears any time the memory flitted through his mind.  He took the guilt for what Brandon had left undone on to himself—“If only I had helped Brandon…”

The toxicity of a relatively brief fight stuck itself inside Willy’s mind and heart.  The memory itself was enough for him to feel how badly upset his father and his brother had been as if it were still happening.  And it hurt him and he bore the guilt of it, even though none of what happened had been his doing or his responsibility.

Now, for us, the lesson is that we really need to do better about the fighting.  Beyond that, though, this makes me wonder anew how anyone could claim Willy lacks empathy for any reason, let alone because he’s autistic?  I find the claim completely unfathomable.