One of my least favorite misconceptions about autism is the myth that autistic individuals lack empathy. The truth is, empathy knows no neurotype. A recent experience with our son was an intense reminder that autistic people can and do care deeply about others, regardless of whether they are human or plastic glow bugs.
A few days ago, our six-year-old lost his favorite toy, a tiny kid’s meal toy named Dazzle. This little glow bug has been his best friend for months, and he took great care of it, despite its tiny size. Unfortunately, it fell behind the porch while he was playing with it and seemed completely out of reach. My son was devastated, not because he lost a toy, but because he felt like he had lost a friend. He worried about Dazzle being alone and scared under the porch in the dark and told us he couldn’t say goodbye to it because he loved it.
As parents, we felt helpless. Short of tearing apart the porch, there seemed to be nothing we could do to ease our son’s pain. I sat him down, crying with him and holding him close while his father tried to plan out a rescue mission. It was heart-wrenching to see our child in such agony over a plastic toy, but of course, it wasn’t about the toy itself. It was about the joy and comfort it brought to him.
After an hour of brainstorming and MacGyver-like resourcefulness, my husband managed to retrieve Dazzle using a camera phone, a clothes hanger, and a glob of sticky tack. The crisis was averted and Dazzle is now safe and sound, but those feelings were real, and they were big. As I sat there holding my son, I couldn’t help but be struck by the depth of his empathy and the intensity of his emotions. It was a powerful reminder that autism is a spectrum and that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
So the next time you hear someone say that autistic individuals don’t feel empathy, remember Dazzle. Remember the love and care that our child has for his little glow bug friend, and know that autistic people can and do care about others, whether they are human or plastic. And I hope that, like my son, you have someone in your life that you care for just as deeply.