Don’t Mix Up Empathy and Civil Rights

French Translation: Empathie et droits humains : deux approches à ne pas confondre

Many times in the autism community parents of autistic children do not like autistic adults weighing in on situations that have to do with their autistic children. I am an autistic adult and often have parents telling me that I should not judge situations if I have not lived it – the “until-you-walk-a-mile-in-their-shoes” is told to me nearly every week as I post the latest news articles along with my comments on social media.

The news articles vary. Some weeks it is about the latest murder of an autistic by their parent. Other weeks it is about some new “treatment” for autistics such as having them eat parasitic worms or endure bleach enemas in the name of improving or curing their autism symptoms. This week it is about the surgical debarking of an autistic teen.

Sometimes I am told that because of my autism I am not capable of feeling empathy. This is an erroneous belief about autism that has been shown not to be valid. In 2013 we now know better, but this knowledge hasn’t caught up to include all people in the larger autism community.

Never-the-less parents who connect empathy and the “walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes” phrase are EXACTLY right. These two concepts do go together. To walk a mile in someone else’s shoes requires a person to have empathy. Even so, whether or not you believe autistics are capable of empathy doesn’t even matter in this case.

The reason I say that is because the thread that these news articles have in common is the stomped on human and civil rights of autistic people. We are not treated with the same rights as other human beings. This is seen over and over, week after week even though the topics of the news stories change.

Just using three examples of news stories already given please consider:

  • Feeding a child worms to intentionally give them intestinal parasites is considered child abuse if done to any child except an autistic child.
  • Murdering one’s child of any age is a terrible crime. Whether or not you believe in the death penalty, it is the punishment rendered by law in some of our states. In other states life without parole or a very many year prison sentence is given. This is because in our civilized society we consider the murder of our own children a reprehensible crime unless that child is autistic, in which case he is blamed for his own murder while public sympathy goes to the criminal murdering parent.
  • Holding down a screaming child to intentionally induce internal chemical burns by administering a bleach enema is considered child abuse if done to any child except an autistic child.

These three examples along with the newest news item regarding the debarking of a teen with autism should not be about empathizing with the parents. Walking a mile in the parent’s shoes is about empathy for the parents. While it is wonderful to empathize most of the time it is not wonderful to empathize in any circumstances where the civil rights of a human being may have been violated.

There is an easy way to begin to sort this out and here is how to do it:

  1. If it is wrong to do something to a human being it is wrong to do that same something to an autistic person because autistic persons are human beings.
  2. If it is a crime to do something to a human being it is a crime to do that same something to an autistic person because autistic persons are human beings.
  3. When a crime is committed empathy goes to the victim even when the victim is autistic. This should go without saying, but unfortunately, it needs to be said.
  4. It is perfectly fine to understand the difficulties in the life of a person performing a criminal act, but the civil rights of the victim, even when the victim is autistic, trump the difficulties of the criminal.
  5. A medical treatment, procedure or surgery for an autistic should only be considered if it is also used on other people. If it is something performed on animals, but not on people then it is not okay to carry out on an autistic. Again, this should go without saying, but unfortunately, needs to be said – autistic people are not animals; they are human beings.

For example, my one time neighbor had her dog debarked so she could keep her dog in her apartment. Even though her child made more noise than the dog, debarking of her child was never considered.

Note: It is irrelevant whether or not this child was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

On September 27, 2013, a news article (no longer available online) included the opening sentence of

“Doctors at UW Madison have found a way to quiet down autistic children who scream loudly and often…”

Likely there will be comments on this post about empathizing with the parents because that is where we are in public discourse about these kinds of news articles at this point in history. I hope there are also a few comments about the human rights and civil rights of autistics.

I know it is difficult for many in today’s society to consider us fully human with our own rights, but it is important to think about and talk about it if you want to be part of the conversation as time marches forward. History shows that when a critical mass of a disenfranchised group demands equal rights as human beings only because they are in fact human beings it is accomplished over time.

It takes a long time, but it is eventually accomplished. Even though adult autistics are still largely ignored or otherwise ridiculed a critical mass is developing. More of our voices are standing up and speaking out against the atrocities committed on our people.

So, talk amongst yourselves. Discuss the issues. Know autistics will be back to weigh in again on whatever news story pops up next. This will be an important conversation for as long as it needs to be.

Have a great week,




Endow, J. (2019).  Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology. Lancaster, PA: Judy Endow.

Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2006).  Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2013).  Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2009).  Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009).  Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2010).  Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013).  The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

French Translation
Empathie et droits humains : deux approches à ne pas confondre
Translation/traduction: Marie Lauzon, C. Tran./trad. a. (Canada)

Originally written for and published by Ollibean