Autism and Empathy

I had just arrived home after one of saddest errands or my life, euthanizing our three year old Labrador Buddy, when the phone rang. I let it go as I was sobbing, and couldn’t stop.


The phone rang again. It had to be Matthew, who is 27 and has autism. I took a deep, cleansing sigh and answered.

“I tried calling you a minute ago, but you didn’t answer,” he said sternly.”Have you been to Ohio?”

“I’ve never been to Ohio, Matthew,” I said, ” but can we talk about Ohio later? I have some sad news. You know Buddy’s been sick with cancer. I took him tot the vet’s office today. Buddy was in a lot of pain so the vet gave him a shot that made his heart stop.”

“That’s what happens with dogs sometimes,” Matthew said. “They get sick and die. Besides, I didn’t like Buddy. He always barked at me and my weed whacker.”

More about Buddy and Matthew HERE.

“But you know I loved him,” I said, tears flowing so freely that Matthew could hear them in my voice. “So maybe now is not the best time to tell me that you didn’t like him.”

“You don’t have to snap at me,” Matthew said, “I just called to ask about Ohio. It’s not my fault that Buddy died.”

I ended the phone call as calmly as I could.

“Tell you what, lets talk again tomorrow,” I said, “I love you but I need to be quiet for a little while.”

“Can we talk about Ohio tomorrow?” he persisted.

I hung up and sighed. I knew that Matthew couldn’t fake empathy,  but his timing, and his insistence, wore me out.


The phone rang the next morning at 7:00 am, just as I was about to take our surviving (and grieving) dog Callie for a walk.

It was Matthew.

“Hi Mom. How are you doing after yesterday?” he asked quietly, “Are you still sad? It’s very hard for me when you are sad.”

I told him I was still sad, but that hearing his voice made me feel so much better. I thanked him.

“Your welcome,” he said. “We’re not even going to talk about Ohio until tomorrow.”


I recommend the following posts that explore the topic of autism and empathy:

Autism and Empathy, Liane Kupferberg Carter

Autism, Empathy and the Sally-Anne Test





Read the first three chapters of A REGULAR GUY: GROWING UP WITH AUTISM here.

You’ll be hooked.
























About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.


  1. Deb says

    Thank you for that. That was a heart-tugging, but beautiful, story. Having a child with that missing empathy piece is really hard, isn’t it? That’s a tough thing to get used to! I am very, very sorry about Buddy.

  2. says

    @ Deb: Actually, Autistic people do not lack empathy. Rather, our ability to express empathy is affected to a greater or lesser degree, but once we’ve processed what’s happened and how others feel about it, we’re often more compassionate than other people. In fact, I’ve often been overwhelmed by emotions I’m unable to identify and express as a result of feeling what someone else is going through.

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