Autism and Empathy: The Yogurt Incident

T's Dream

Recently, two consecutive nights of sleep vanished into the maw of an autistic child’s dreams.

The first evening, nightmares obliged me to haul my massive pillow collection to my son’s room for an all-nighter. I tried to rest as he whimpered and wiggled.  His dozing body sought me out, burrowing into my back and belly.  I would have slept on the floor, but I sensed he needed my physical presence to remain asleep.

Our second sleepless night opened with Liev’s hysterical complaint of not needing sleep, ever.  Our usual tricks did not work.  His stubborn frenzy kept him up hours past his regular bedtime.

During the second night, recurring nightmares left him wailing for company. At 5:30 a.m., he launched an irritable, fussy day with demands of an immediate bedroom vacuuming. Hours of perseveration, arguing and intractable obsessiveness followed.

For a child who sleeps and wakes regularly, it took a jarring event to shake his sleep schedule so intensely. What caused his nighttime terror?

The yogurt incident.

The Incident

Thursday afternoon during snack time, Liev amused his peers by twisting his yogurt tube. It burst, spattering the kids around him.

One of the spattered children was Hardy. Hardy has multiple food allergies. Hardy’s milk allergy is so acute that his contact with yogurt caused edema. His mother whisked him out of school for the day.

Liev related the experience after school.  His conscientious CM, Crystalyn, filled in the remaining details—Hardy was okay and Liev expressed concern for his friend in an expected manner.

Liev did not want to talk about the incident further, so I assumed all was well.

Until, of course, he woke up with his first nightmare:

Mickey Mouse (his plush) and he were sailing on his bed in the ocean. Suddenly, Mickey began to choke and turn blue, red and then purple. Mickey swelled up and fell in the water. Worst of all–he tearfully told me—Mickey’s face changed emotion. Mickey went from happy to sad.

The next morning, he refused breakfast.  He shook with clenched, white fists, begging to stay home.  He wailed as I buckled him into his bus seat.  Crystalyn and his para-educators worked to ease his anxiety over returning to Hardy’s afternoon kindergarten class.

Weeks later, the incident still resonates. Mickey Mouse has been consigned to the attic. The sight of yogurt tubes no longer upset Liev, but no amount of persuasion will get him to eat one. Yesterday, he jogged and jumped around the gross motor room, outlining plans to keep Hardy safe. “I don’t want to hurt a friend, ever,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Autism and Empathy

The issue in autism is not a lack of empathy, but rather a profound over-abundance of it. The terror of harming another person caused my son deep, psychic unrest.  Liev thinks and cares about Hardy. He will enforce class rules to keep Hardy safe. One day Liev will generalize this event, making his own rules, lists and schedules for a safer, more orderly world.

His nascent social consciousness must be recognized and nurtured. It is easy to mistake a flat or negative affect for indifference or egoism. An autistic person’s emotional sensitivity can cause retreat–a coping mechanism to protect an over-sensitive self.  I must guide my son to reap benefits from his emotional gifts instead of being crushed by them.

12 thoughts on “Autism and Empathy: The Yogurt Incident

    1. Thank you for the support! We are doing better, with plenty of positive feedback from school. Alas, if life was only more predictable (said everybody in the world!). 🙂

  1. Oh, gosh! I starting tearing up for T when reading this. It is a gut wrenching feeling for me when I feel like I have hurt someone. It can be debilitating. I feel for the both of you not getting sleep. I hope you are able to get some rest!

    All three of my kids experience this and all respond differently. Daniel attacks himself when he feels he has upset or hurt someone. Ariel gets angry not at people, but just angry and will flop on her bed or growl or something. Joshua will sob, wail, and scream. I do all of the above! Ha ha ha

    “The issue in autism is not a lack of empathy, but rather a profound over-abundance of it.” You are so correct!

    “I must guide my son to reap benefits from his emotional gifts instead of being crushed by them.” Indeed, my friend, indeed!

    Wishing for better sleep!

    Sending you {{{{{{hugs}}}}}} too.

    P.S. I love the image! I used to collect black-and -white cows. 🙂

    1. Your comment shows just how we autists have empathy!

      I’ve never been a mean person, but when I realize I have said or done something that hurts another, I feel squashed. You are right, it is debilitating. It disturbs your wellness and is hard to shake off. I am glad we have an excellent team at school. I can’t imagine how hard life would be without support and understaning.

      Thanks for sharing how your children react to upset. Such diversity in one family! You must be on your toes to help them all.

      I obsess, my husband retreats and my son makes lists. Oddly, my boy seems to have the best idea! Thank you for sharing and caring!


  2. Such an important point in understanding spectrum kids! My son can often pass for NT (which is sometimes problematic) There are times when this super verbal kid lacks pragmatic skills and shows it, by making a very logical yet insensitive comment, but because he is so verbal and bright several teachers assumed he was being mean_ “Lacked empathy”. But the fact of the matter is he doesn’t lack empathy at all, he just doesn’t understand that he is speaking in a way that could hurt someones feelings. And also see in some cases that high level of senitivity that you describe (perhaps not nightmare causing). And I am very aware now that he picks up on stress signals and moods of others (they make him aggitated, but I don’t think he understands them always) and that the effects his own mood/behavior. Part of why I think last year’s teacher was such a bad match, she was grieving the death of her mother, found out her husband had cancer, then her sister–and she was visibly depressed.

    1. You are dead on. Sometimes when children are verbal and they pass for NT the expectations are far beyond what they can meet. As a little Aspie, I know that I made many statements that left me face palming for weeks. I often find that these statements were a result of missing the context of a conversation. Little autists want to understand and connect with words, not hurt with them.

      You mentioned how your son picks up on stress signals. My son is very much that way. If I feel unwell or upset, it distresses him greatly. Like your son, he becomes aggitated. Perhaps he blames himself? It unbalances him. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for you and your son last year. I will keep this in mind for Tyoma if he begins to experience trouble at school.

      Thank you for the perspective and good thoughts!

  3. I so agree with you. I think one of the most heinous things I’ve read and heard regarding autism is the so called “lack of empathy” theory, which is not only false, but really destructive in that people assume this to be true and then use that assumption to justify their own non-empathic responses to those who are autistic. It makes me crazy! I think you are completely correct, “The issue in autism is not a lack of empathy, but rather a profound over-abundance of it.” YES! And I LOVED this – “I must guide my son to reap benefits from his emotional gifts instead of being crushed by them.” How wonderful.

    1. Ariane,

      Thank you for visiting and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate hearing another voice to add to the choir of support for autism acceptance. Misinformation about autism can be destructive–I agonized for months over my son’s impending diagnosis. The head-shaking and pity of well-meaning but misinformed therapists frightened me.

      I know better now. Words of support liberate and connect us. The more we speak out and share our stories, the more we can help familes heave a sigh of relief. Not only are they not alone, but a thriving and positive community awaits them.


  4. I think so too! It’s so good to meet you Lori. It’s taken me EIGHT years to begin finding all of you, but now that I am, I am so happy and so much more hopeful!!

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