Empathy and Autism are like Superman and Clark Kent

Have you ever noticed that you never see Superman and Clark Kent in the same place at the same time? That’s rather odd, isn’t it?

They both exist, although you only see Superman from time to time where as you see Clark Kent quite often. They definitely do seem quite different though… Superman holds his shoulders up high, stands tall… seems to handle people well. Clark Kent on the other hand tends to slouch, keep his head down and isn’t exactly the coolest person in the group.

I got to thinking about it, if my son was that guy… then empathy would be his Superman persona and his Autistic traits would be his Clark Kent.

Clark Kent

My wife and I have had a very trying couple of weeks… mounting stresses over mounting stresses. Nothing life threatening, we still have our health however, eventually, stresses have a way of breaking you down.

This is what happened to my wife. Eventually, one day, it became too much and she began to cry.

As I held her, my two sons sat on the couch… playing games.

After a couple of minutes, Tyler, my 3 year old without Autism, put down his game and came to us. He put his arms around us and asked his mommy what was wrong. “Mommy, why are you crying?” he asked.

Meanwhile, there on the couch sat my little Clark Kent. He knows his mom is crying. He knows that there must be something wrong, but he doesn’t even give us a second look. He just sat there, playing his game.

Superman LogoSuperman

From time to time, I get to see the superhero emerge… when he’s needed.

Most of the time, it’s for his little brother. When Tyler is hurt, or upset… Cameron is there. Whether it be due to actual empathy or Cameron not wanting to get into trouble…. he consoles his little brother. It’s not always for one reason or another but it can be hard to tell which is which sometimes.

There’s something you need to understand about Clark Kent… even though all you can see is the slouched shoulders, lowered head and introverted nature, Superman is in there.

Clark Kent won’t stand up tall but he’s still bullet proof. You just can’t see it.

Looking for Superman

Nobody looks for Clark Kent. When someone is hurt or in need, nobody expects Clark Kent to answer. They want Superman. And it can be so disappointing when he doesn’t come.

When Cameron sat on that couch, it was disappointing that he didn’t come to his mother. Not surprising, but disappointing.

We are never upset by it though, never judging. We understand… we know… empathy is in there. Inside that little slouched boy with his head down, playing his game… Superman is in there.

He didn’t give us a second look… but he did look once. He did show his concern, in his way.

When you don’t know that Clark Kent is Superman, you don’t look for Superman within him. But when you do know, you can see it plain as day. You no longer see the glasses or the posture… you see Superman, in a disguise. You see him look to the danger and make the decision to show up as Superman, or to let it be as Clark Kent.

I see empathy in my son. I see it every day and I see him make those decisions every day.

Never assume something isn’t there just because it’s well disguised. When he’s ready, Superman will be there.

About Stuart Duncan

My name is Stuart Duncan, creator of http://www.stuartduncan.name. My oldest son (Cameron) has Autism while my younger son (Tyler) does not. I am a work from home web developer with a background in radio. I do my very best to stay educated and do what ever is necessary to ensure my children have the tools they need to thrive. I share my stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online Autism community and to promote Autism Understanding and Acceptance.

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9 Responses to Empathy and Autism are like Superman and Clark Kent

  1. mummy_pig June 11, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    Absolutely brilliant! 🙂

  2. J Philip Faranda June 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    Stuart, very true in our case. Gregory has surprised us when he’s gone and gotten a tissue or band aid for his brother or mother. We know there is an intelligent, beautiful soul in there, it is just locked behind faulty circuitry.

  3. Tiffany June 11, 2011 at 2:31 pm #


  4. Jacqueline Houtman June 11, 2011 at 2:34 pm #

    Lovely post. Neurotypicals have an expectation of what empathy “looks like.” As I discussed in a blog post in April (http://jjhoutman.livejournal.com/54994.html), people on the autism spectrum get their information about other people’s emotions and express their own emotions in ways that NTs may not expect. NTs often interpret this (incorrectly) as a lack of empathy.

  5. Marita June 11, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    Love this.

  6. Vicki June 11, 2011 at 9:23 pm #

    Well said.I have been bombarded by the ‘no empathy’point of view this week.At times my son has displayed an empathy that is so deep it hurts.At times,mainly when neurotypicals seem to demand it,he shows nothing.(nothing that neurotypicals can precieve as empathy anyway.)Thank you Stuart.

  7. bleu June 14, 2011 at 11:38 pm #

    Great post and yes, it’s in there as you mentioned, just not expressed the same way. When my son was 2 years old, I went away for a few days for a business function. I was a little sad because he didn’t appear to care. While away my mother said, that my son was carrying around this pink teddy bear and she asked me about it. I told her, he NEVER even paid that bear any attention. She said he held it every day and the day I came home, he put it down. That was his way of expressing his feeling that I wasn’t there.

  8. Edwin Rutsch June 15, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    • Fueyo July 7, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

      Without that thought, education and profitable interaction is bound to failure, that is : if you think ill of a person, it won’t bring out the good in her.

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