Closing Our Empathy Gaps

By Tim Paauw

“I DON’T have any empathy gaps!!”

This was my first reaction when reading about the concept of “empathy gaps” as part of a book study I am participating in professionally with the CLC Network. I imagine this is most people’s instinctive reaction when you first ponder the thought. That is because it is a term that by nature digs deep and hits our heart. Innately I imagine we all struggle with this at some level. Allow me to explain…

An empathy gap = a person’s relative inability to put themselves in the place of another person according to researchers John Hattie and Gregory Yates in their book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn.

On deeper reflection of this concept I realized that I’m full of empathy gaps, many of which are not intentional but out of ignorance. Often I may think, assume, and sometimes even recommend things to someone (or judge someone) without taking time to first ASK questions with the intention of learning/understanding. Each time I do this, I would suggest that I have an empathy gap according to the definition.

Let me share a few examples to assist in this concept related to our son’s autism challenges and empathy gaps we have seen in other people publicly:

  • When we enter a noisy restaurant with lots of televisions on the walls (you know the type of restaurant I’m referring to), our son Nolan can at times meltdown because of all the smells (food) mixing with sounds (televisions and conversations). His brain doesn’t filter all of this the same way as most people. Therefore, we have found the most effective way to help him enjoy a restaurant experience is to allow him to use a cell phone and watch a movie on Netflix while he eats. This gives him a close and central focus of sound/visual/textile all in one spot that helps him tone out the rest and filter down and calm down.
    • If you are someone who would stare at our family in the restaurant (it happens) and wonder why parents give a son their cell phone during dinner then you may have an empathy gap.
  • Our son Nolan HATES walking into any medical office because he has a memory can photographically recall his past experiences in a location. When we walk into any appointment for our children we carry a plastic bag in our pocket in case his anxiety gets the best of him and he needs the bag. Because he gets so worked up visibly (tears, grunting, pacing the room with hands over his ears) we do our best to sign-in and find a quiet space in the waiting area as soon as we are able.
    • If you are the person in line ahead of us at the counter or the person working behind the counter who can’t pick up on these signs and allow us to “cut” then I would suggest you have an empathy gap.
  • Nolan is a calm kiddo who LOVES friendship and belonging. Because he is nonverbal and has been socially isolated in various contexts, he doesn’t EVER initiate or invite someone to play a game or read a book.
    • If you are someone who thinks Nolan must not like to be with others and prefers his alone time, then you may be someone with an empathy gap.
    • NOTE: Nolan attends a class that has peers constantly learning more about him, joining him in his activities, and inviting him to join their activities. In the cover photo to this post is a scene of one of his best friends from school walking back to class and helping Nolan get there–a few of the words Nolan DOES know are the names of his friends.

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So… how is it that we build up our capacity for empathy? How do we close our gaps?

One of my dear friends gave me a suggestion the other day for a circumstance that I think would provide an answer using “P’s”:

  • Presume nothing (don’t judge someone’s situation without the next steps),
  • Probe using sensitive questions to understand (“I noticed you doing ____, it was a bit different than what I’m used to, could I ask a few questions?”,
  • Patiently Process by listening carefully (Pause),
  • Paraphrase to verify correct understanding (“So what you are saying is…”),
  • Pass on your best understanding to others when context comes up (I used to think ___, but I have learned ___ from a similar situation which may OR may NOT be the case–don’t presume!)

“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
~1 John 4:11-12 NIV


Focus. Involve Family & Friends.


“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” -Hebrews 12:1-2

Maybe you have received a diagnosis or have a closed loved one that has at some point. It may be for a physical issue, an emotional struggle, or something else.  If so, you can relate to my first entry  for where I shared the heart feeling that comes with a diagnosis of any sort–that feeling where your heart stops, the world freezes, and all sense of ‘normal’ goes out the window.

We empathize with others because diagnoses  steal the feeling of “life as normal” and lead to “life unknown”. Embrace it. In that moment you are exactly where God wants you–dependent on Him.

When Nolan was diagnosed, we got home from that appointment and felt lost. “Now what?” We wanted to solve it and felt powerless. The truth is, that was a healthy thing. It taught us, required us, to open our eyes and realize the volume of people in our life that wanted to help. We became fragile, vulnerable, most importantly dependent.

We began to realize  that the only way we could provide what is best for Nolan’s needs was to simply be humble and ask (fighting that human nature of pride). As the Bible mentions in the opening verses of Hebrews 12, we needed to throw off everything (pride, self-pity, sorrow) that was hindering us, that distracted us from the beautiful fact that Nolan is a child of God. Christ is in Him. He is an image bearer of God. With that understanding, there is worth in persevering through the challenges as they shape us. We could learn to fix our eyes on the journey ahead and find energy and support from family and friends. The cloud of witnesses in our life, those that we have opened up to and trusted with Nolan, have made the challenges seem achievable.

Our advice to anyone overwhelmed with a diagnosis (no matter what type)… don’t believe that “confidentiality” and “privacy” is your best avenue. You need to recognize the cloud of witnesses surrounding you. If you don’t have close family and friends who may help, call a church close by and request a meeting with the pastor for the purpose of enlisting help.

If you are a family member or friend of someone asking you for prayers or help, don’t ever reply with “I am not really an expert in ____”. None of us are. Instead, accept the request and join the journey and team. Research the diagnosis and find out more. Ask questions.  In doing so you send the message, “I’m trying to also understand. Please let me be a part of your journey.”

Laura and I decided early on that we would study up on autism, learn the facts and read the research  so that we would better understand how to parent him but also educate and build awareness for others.

A few steps our family has taken in the past few years in Our Autism Journey:

We have been blessed by the encouragement and resources offered through the CLC Network in Grand Rapids for schools and churches (CLC Network Blog)

We now visit Autism Speaks regularly. We have purchased their t-shirts as a step of supporting awareness and to engage others in conversations.

We have found an amazing ABA Therapy group who has provided coaching in our home and meets works with Nolan 1-on-1 weekly (Behavioral Analysts of West Michigan).

We googled “laws regarding autism in Michigan” and learned of the Autism Reform Law in Michigan that allows our health insurance coverage to support many therapies (Michigan’s Autism Links).

We asked for help at church and now have an entire team of supporters who make each Sunday possible for our family (Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Ada)

We are blessed by a school in our neighborhood that believes in including students of all abilities so that the entire body of Christ can grow together spiritually, socially, and academically (West Side Christian School).