Today is Empathy Day – a day which focuses on a human being’s capacity to understand and share feelings. Is empathy something that we all have? Sometimes, looking around you and seeing other people’s behaviour, you might feel the answer is ‘no’. But I think we do all have empathy – we perhaps just don’t all show it in the same way and for the same things.

My mum had autism. We didn’t know she had autism until she was diagnosed at the age of 72. This meant that throughout her life she was misunderstood by people, not least by members of her own family – me included. One of the criticisms I often levelled at her was that she was not very empathetic. She could often come across as harsh and rarely seemed to even want to try to understand what others were feeling. She sometimes acted in ways that seemed inappropriate – laughing when I was sad about something, or shrugging me off when I needed a hug, for example. Once when I ran home crying because I had seen a squirrel run over by a car, Mum was simply baffled that I could get so upset over the death of a wild animal that she considered to be a garden pest. She didn’t seem to know what to do with all the emotions I was feeling.

After Mum was diagnosed, I read as much as I could about autism. I quickly realised that I was guilty of a lot of preconceptions about people with the condition. I had seen the film Rain Man, I had read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – I had seen the stage play, too. I had watched The A Word. I was pretty confident that all people with autism were ‘closed-in’: self-contained and absorbed in their own inner world to the point that they could not communicate with ‘normal’ people and certainly had no capacity for empathy.

What I read made me feel ashamed. The writer Alis Rowe of The Girl With the Curly Hair says, ‘It is thought that the way people on the autism spectrum experience emotions is different from neurotypical people’. In other words, people with autism still do experience emotions, they just don’t show it in the same way as a neurotypical person (a person without autism).

Some people with autism are so overwhelmed with empathy that it can feel physically painful. In cases such as these, they can either shut down completely (as my mother did when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer) or they can go into a complete meltdown (as my mother did when I left home and she felt heartbroken).

So perhaps today, Empathy Day, is a good time to take a moment to have empathy for those who appear to behave differently. And to realise that just because someone doesn’t behave how you expect, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t feelings things as deeply as you.

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A Place for Everything: my mother, autism and me is a memoir, published by HarperCollins publishers on 9th July 2020.

Reviews for A Place for Everything:

‘Painful, raw and with an honesty that rings clear as a bell’ – Catherine Simpson, author of When I Had a Little Sister

‘This is a seminal book in this area. The new frontier for the diagnosis of autism is the very last decade of life. In this captivating story, the author describes how her mother’s lifelong eccentricity was finally explained, providing a sense of closure and resolution.’ Professor Tony Attwood, clinical psychologist and world authority on autism in women.