Changing “I can relate…” to “I can’t, but I care”


by Tim Paauw

If you know of someone with autism, depression, anxiety, or another non-visible diagnosis, you may have heard them share a comment or story that may highlight one of the daily challenges within their diagnosis. Perhaps in that moment you aren’t quite sure how to respond and offer what the person might perceive as a worthless comment like “I can relate… I had that when_____.” (unless you are diagnosed with that exact same thing and they are aware of it, be cautious to share a momentary story as a connection to someone’s larger daily journey)

Here are a few example scenarios:

  • Your friend with autism says: “I’m sorry I can’t come to the fireworks on the 4th of July with the group of our friends. The crowd and noise can really overwhelm me and I may meltdown or shut-down. I better pass.”You might be tempted to respond with: “Oh, I totally get it. I can relate because I don’t always like loud noises either.” (Not believable, since you are hoping to go to the fireworks – this may make the person feel like their emotion/situation is being minimized or misunderstood)
  • You colleague with depression says, “As much as this topic is important, I can’t attend the meeting today. I am not feeling up to it.”You might be tempted to respond with: “No worries, I can relate. I was tired earlier today too.” (Your comment may be vastly undervaluing the true nature of the issue that the person LIVES with an overwhelming exhaustion and regrets not being able to attend the meeting)

(Relate to the person, Not to the moment)
What if instead, you responded to these types of situations giving the message that empathy is NOT in relating to the moment, but rather that you relate to the person and want to be caring by supporting them in their challenge or THROUGH that moment.

Instead of “I can relate…”, try using “I can’t relate, but I care. I not quite sure what to do or say but want you to know how important you are to me, do you have thoughts on how I can help?” (Perhaps offer a suggestion through question form to show this value. In the example for work above you could offer to your colleague “How about I take good notes and we enjoy a cup of coffee  together tomorrow so I can catch you up to speed, would that be helpful?”

I believe there is a powerful empathy when someone affirms a challenging comment with an admission that “I  don’t think I  fully understand what you feel, but I want to help because you matter to me.” … wherever the conversation leads after that comment, you have likely made that person FEEL valued and they won’t forget it.

What if we saw each person we interact with as beautiful, because he or she is made in God’s image – pausing to weigh our response and the value it will have in affirming them rather than the moment? What if we were to admit sometimes that we don’t always understand, we might never understand, and sometimes can’t even be sure we have a helpful thing to provide but love them and want to show that we care (perhaps adjusting plans at times or being okay with them passing on plans and knowing you support them in doing so). In doing this, what perhaps the message we sent is: “I don’t know how you feel, but I believe you are beautifully created by our loving God and I value you.” Maybe in this genuine vulnerability we see greater awareness, stronger compassion, and truer relationships form. At times, the conversation may end with “Thanks for asking, but I don’t have any great suggestions. I just want to pass on this event.” I believe in that response, one should still know there was value in that interaction and, at times, accepting this request is showing you care.

My Love Note to Laura

by Tim Paauw
7/8/18 aa

I remember vividly holding hands with you, the love of my life, and walking through the sparkler-filled tunnel of our favorite people at the end of our perfect evening. I can still see family and friends holding their sparklers and smiling with us as though that moment happened in slow motion and was meant for eternity. I was about to enter the next chapter of life with you, the big unknown was in front of us and yet we promised to take each step together. That was a promise that was easy to make and has been easy to keep, because we did it with Christ in our hearts and as Lord of our life. We love because He first loved us.

The pastor preached our wedding message earlier that day from 1 Corinthians 13:13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Our wedding day was filled with surprises, fun, toasts, and songs (even a Paauw Brothers Special and a Tito & Rich Blue Moon duet). We danced our first dance to “Bless the Broken Road” by Selah. I believe that song choice was not just a reflection of our past but nearly prophetic about our life ahead as it is a broken road but God has blessed each step.

Twelve years later, we find ourselves celebrating our anniversary in the spirit of true, eternal love – filled with self-sacrificing Christ-like ‘agape’ love each putting the other’s interest first and finding joy in that. Since our wedding, we have celebrated new life with our 3 kids!


I would have never imagined when we said “I do” that it would come with the autism journey for two of our kids. I also believe if someone had been able to give me that heads up years ago, I would not have been able to imagine the amazing blessings that are found within this journey. I get to see your love daily as you put our kids needs above your own. I’ve seen your strength as you have advocated in situations where autism has been challenged in ways that others can’t even fathom. I have grown in my faith by seeing you model a self-sacrificing love in ways that most moms have not been privileged to know as a result of the needs that come with autism. I’ve learned about hope through you as you’ve taught many others and continue to build awareness within our community of how to better understand autism and warmly embrace our boys. I’ve learned endurance through your ability to manage school, therapies, and swimming lesson schedules for all 3 kids so that each one would know that mom cares and is there for them.

What I did already know twelve years ago when I said “I do” is that you are a teacher, but I have now seen you teach our kids things that I didn’t think they’d ever be able to achieve. You’ve taught our daughter how to understand, love, and befriend both of her brothers – she is ‘all in’ for this crazy broken road with us. You’ve taught our boys how to face challenges and know they are able to grow through them. You’ve encouraged them to see beauty in their abilities rather than be bogged down by the glances of the public or the comments and questions people ask in front of them about their autism. You have taught them to be their best even when they are facing their worst moments.

So, God HAS blessed the broken road that led me straight to you AND the road that you and I walk, hand in hand. Although the road may feel quite different than that magical moment filled with sparklers and smiles, I believe as our West Side Christian School friends would say, it is ‘beyond belief’.

I love you to the moon and back and cannot wait to see where this crazy broken road will lead us next. We’ve got this!!