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Sometimes What Looks Like Empathy, Isn't

Real compassion and empathy often means asking "Why?"

Isolated child on the playground

Change isn't easy for those of us on the spectrum. The beginning of a new school year is replete with it. Given this, it's inevitable that students with Asperger's would run into a few bumps along the way. Jeanne Holverstott recently wrote an interesting post about some of the challenges she's experienced through the eyes of her clients, young men with AS.

In her post, Jeanne wrote about how subtleties such as perception and social position can create unexpected complications for those on the spectrum, ones that are not always easy to explain. When trying to make sense of "the rules" of social engagement - how do you deal with dynamics that disparately effect those with AS?

As diverse as those of us one the spectrum are, I'm often shocked by how specific commonalities can be. As I read Jeanne's post, I was reminded of an incident in my life that was very similar to the ones she described. One in which language and perception, came together catastrophically during a particularly difficult time in my life.


As I've written about previously, fourth grade was particularly difficult for me. I was subjected to a level of bullying I had never before experienced. It was calculated, coordinated, violent, and relentless - and took a terrible toll.

Long before the school year ended, my father began making preparations to get us out of there. When he was finally offered a job in a neighboring town, he wasted no time. He took it - happy to have removed me from an intolerable situation. But the true cost of the bullying and betrayal I'd experienced wouldn't be truly evident until the new school year began.

My new teacher was very extroverted and people-centric - traits that would seem ideal in a teacher. But we quickly came to clash. In her estimation, being alone and isolated were the worst possible outcomes for anyone. I was both.

Not that I wanted to be...but I was coming from a completely different perspective. For me, isolation was a far less painful place than the world in which I had spent the previous year - a world in which it was impossible to tell the cruel from the kind, and being around people meant living in constant fear, wondering where and when the next attack would come. And my teacher unknowingly made it worse - in an attempt to integrate me into the social sphere of the classroom, she "assigned" me a friend.

It was a situation I'd been primed to fear. The worst bully in my previous school - the ringleader who led many of the attacks - had been a girl who'd been "assigned" to befriend me, in that case by her mother. She'd resented it, and made me pay for it, dearly. I now feared the same from this new girl.


I didn't know how to articulate my feelings, or how to explain the dynamics that caused them, so I reacted the only way I knew how. I waited until I thought no-one was looking, and made a beeline to a remote corner of the playground. After the first recess, when my new friend came inside without me in tow, our teacher reprimanded her publicly. Now, the girl had definite motive to dislike me - I'd gotten her in trouble. Embarrassed at having caused this girl grief, I avoided her all the more.

Afraid and unsure what to do, I spend most days pacing the edges of the playground. I wanted friends, and social contact, but I had no idea how to successfully make it happen - I didn't have the tools. I didn't know how to identify what I needed, or ask for the help. So, I resigned myself to isolation.

My teacher became more and more troubled, and decided it was time for her to take action. During every recess, she would watch me like a hawk, alert to any sign of unsociability on my part. When she saw it, she'd intervene, and attempt to push me into some form of social activity.

I was non-compliant. Fear was a powerful motivator - and I found more and more ways to avoid her. It became an ongoing tug of war. The harder she pushed me to be social, the more my fears and anxieties grew - and the more I isolated myself.

As it escalated, so did my stress level. I came home more and more tense and exhausted. Seeing this, my father attempted to intervene. But no matter how he fought to explain my fears, he only encountered frustration. She just couldn't, or wouldn't, hear him - and the tug of war continued.

Serious Girl

For all my social isolation, I'd always excelled academically. In that I held myself to high standards, and so did my father. But as my stress level climbed, it began to show in my grades. One day, as I stared at a big red "C" scrawled across the top of my most recent test, I cracked.

All the stress and anxiety boiled over. I began to shake, and started to cry. My classmates were kind and concerned, and they asked me what was wrong. "I got a C." I showed them the paper. "My father's gonna kill me." It was phrase I'd heard my peers casually use countless times to denote parental displeasure. When they used it, no one ever seemed to give it a second thought. When I used it, it backfired badly.

My father was on the receiving end of a panicked phone call. "Why would you say such a thing," he burst out as we drove home. "You know I'd never hurt you!" I was surprised at the vehemence of his reaction, and confused. Why was everyone upset? Why were they taking me so literally? I wondered what he had been told - and how the meaning of my words had been twisted.

I can only imagine my father's fear when he received this call - he understood all too clearly what an errant accusation could do. We'd been through it before. Was my poorly received attempt at peer-appropriate language going to result in another investigation? Would the family be further torn apart by outside suspicion?

From the outside, looking in, people may have admired my teacher. "Look at how she cares," I imagine them saying, "Look at how hard she tries to help that poor little girl!" But from the other side, it looked very different.

My experience in her classroom was one of the worst in my school career. I can't tell you how many times I wished for a single word from her: "Why?" Her aims and my aims were the same - I wanted to be social as much as she wanted me to be. But I needed help that only understanding could provide. But I didn't get that.

I didn't have a diagnosis - so I can only guess what my teacher had labeled me in her mind. Abused? Disturbed? Regardless of what name she put on it - it was clear she saw me as "other."

My best teachers did ask why. Better yet, they often read between the lines and came up with the answers themselves. It's sad for me to see that despite all the education and awareness, so many have not learned to do the same. The unfortunate truth is that sometimes, what masquerades as compassion and empathy is really just judgment, in disguise.

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