09/08/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Different Kind of Empathy

I had just arrived home after one of saddest errands of 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 my 28-year-old son Matthew, who is autistic. 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 to 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."

"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.

"Thank you so much for calling, Matthew."

"Your welcome," he said. "We're not even going to talk about Ohio until tomorrow."


More about Buddy, the autism therapy dog that flunked.

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