Autism’s Diagnosis on the Heart

Disclaimer:  This is a wonderful article written by David McGrinn, a guest author of Autism Plugged In – it does not fit our usual theme (I’ll have more app reviews coming soon) but I found it very interesting, and I think those of you who have loved ones on the spectrum will appreciate it.


sympathy and empathy


The parents of Autistic children know all too well the diagnostic features of Autism provided by the American Psychological Association. As I review the diagnostic criterion for Asperger’s Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), a particular diagnostic feature jumped off the page. “Although the social deficit in Asperger’s Disorder is severe and is defined in the same way as in Autistic Disorder, the lack of social reciprocity is more typically manifest by an eccentric and one-sided social approach to others rather than social and emotional indifference” (American Psychological Association, 2000, p. 84).

My degree in psychology allows me to understand what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders means, yet I still lacked true understanding. I was what you could call a sympathizer wishing for empathy because empathy leads to the complete understanding of any behavior. I did not know the burden I asked for, otherwise I may not have asked for it.

Her pen name is Faith Rose, a mother who places her family’s heart on the surgical table for others to examine the depths of a couple raising a little boy diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder. Her son’s struggle with life’s simplicities, such as eating, sleeping, crawling, playing, imagining, and interacting was not the beginning of which she had hoped. This behavior set into motion an uninvited isolation that caused the swift withdrawal from playgroups, outings, and socialization in general.

My intent in writing this is not to reveal what too many parents already know about their little gems. My focus is on empathy’s ability to slice the heart open, and an open-heart puts an end to what Faith describes as, “eyes that simply usher her and her son out of rooms.” Sympathy I had, empathy I needed to cure my ignorant eyes.

When looking at sympathy – the conformity of feelings, inclinations, or temperament that makes persons agreeable to each other – there are limitations in sympathy by the mere nature of conformity. Sympathy is superficial because it relies too much on conformity. Essentially sympathizing with another can take place for the sake of sympathy rather than the true absorption of two people, where one undergoes distress and the other does not. Empathy, on the other hand, defies sympathy’s limitations.

Empathy is the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation, in this case Autism. In other words two walk entirely together, although not physically, rather emotionally. However, empathy is more than an emotional enticement; it is truly to experience distress with another. I learned the power of empathy the hard way.

I had several explanations for the little boy reciting his desire for a fire truck, which grew louder with each repetition. As the mother frantically searched for a fire truck in her backpack, her little boy found solace in a red flashlight. She quieted the eyes of us parents sitting in the pediatric waiting room after placing the round button saying, “I have Autism” on her son’s shirt. I quietly said, “That is unfortunate” giving that mother a bit of unsolicited sympathy.

Faith Rose, in her unpublished book called, “Now to Him” cut sympathy out of my heart and replaced it with a piece of empathy. Faith instructed me in a way the DSM-IV could not. I no longer look at the situation as unfortunate. The parents of children with Autism are amazing individuals who have the responsibility of caring for God’s precious treasures. Given another opportunity, that mother will find a parent lending an empathetic hand rather than unsolicited sympathy.

American Psychological Association. (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision.

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Who’s Behind Autism Plugged In?

Who’s Behind Autism Plugged In?

My name is Jack Kieffer and I'm a blogger sharing my love of technology at blogs like Cool Gizmo Toys, Greenamajigger, and here at Autism Plugged In where I'm trying to make a difference in the lives of children with autism.

Several years ago, I began volunteering with special needs kids, who gave me much joy and an appreciation for life. This blog is my way of giving back. Any proceeds from this effort are used to support my friends with autism. Read more about Jack or connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.