Can people who have autism show empathy? There are lots of studies into autism differences in imagination, problems with understanding, comprehension and seeing things from another’s point of view.I supported a man in his twenties in a residential care home; he lived alongside 11 other people. The man was unable to communicate verbally – his communication was limited to one signing gesture – rapidly tapping his hand to his chin to indicate ‘yes’ ‘no’ and ‘now’; facial expressions of smiles and grimaces and rocking from side to side (the speed of which would indicate calm or agitated). This man was known for his impatience. He would become uptight if things were not in the order he required, this restlessness often over-spilling into frantic pushing into (or through) other people.
One of the ladies in the home would talk incessantly about this man, yet her chatter never appeared to stress him. She always wanted to know where he was, what he was doing and if they could do things together. The man showed little emotion towards her in return; just appearing to tolerate the constant noise of her nattering.
Over the period of a year the lady’s health rapidly deteriorated. Although she was only in her twenties she lost the skills she had and eventually even her talking stopped. She spent more time in bed, unable to talk, walk and communicate – other than the messages her eyes sent to those who knew her well. It was noted that the man would visit her room, barging in, unaware of the concept of privacy, just looking at her, whilst rocking in a calm manner from side to side.
Eventually the lady fell asleep. Her passing was peaceful.
We agreed it was best that the other people living in the home went out, so that her family could spend some final, undisturbed time with her. As the staff team sorted out the impromptu day-trip, I called the man to one side. Disregarding the assumptions of his disability I discussed with him what had happened to his friend, using straight language as to enable as much understanding as possible. I asked him if he would like to go to her room to say goodbye in person. He tapped his hand to his chin and impatiently walked to the door to get to the homes’ minibus. I figured perhaps the trip out was more important to him.
The following morning as we sat down for breakfast, the man showed no signs of grief. He seemed the same as ever. He impatiently grabbed at his cup of tea and then pushed past the person next to him to reach for the teapot. He reached further over and grabbed my cup. I was about to intervene, thinking he was going to drink the dregs left in the bottom, but something stopped me. I watched with amazement as he picked up my cup, filled both my cup and his own with tea, and then pushed the full cup back in front of me. He’d poured me a drink.
I smiled, said thank you and drank the sweetest cup of tea ever.
I have always remembered this funny, impatient and pushy man with fondness. It was only the once that I witnessed him obviously doing something for someone else and I believe this was his way of saying ‘thank you’ for treating him with respect in a difficult time. Outwardly he never showed any signs of bereavement, but in his own way he gave a clear message of gratitude.