Coffee, tea, or empathy?

Holy Cannoli coffee hanging out with a teapot and matching mug my delightful kiddo got me

Someday, when it’s safe for all involved, I will be able to visit my lovely father-in-law and his lovely wife again. 

And when I do, I will bring my coffee kettle, the coffee scale and beautiful glass Chemex coffee-pour-over jug my kiddo got me for Christmas, the coffee grinder my kiddo recommended I get, and my favorite coffee beans.

Partly because the beans are called “Holy Cannoli” and feature label art inspired by my father-in-law’s favorite movie, The Godfather. The coffee itself is also very good, and I’d like to share it with him.

And partly because bringing all my own equipment is apparently – and I say this with all possible love, respect, and accuracy – the only dad-blasted way I will ever get a cup of coffee in my father-in-law’s home.


Because he’s neurotypical. 

According to Laura S. DeThorne, PhD, neurotypical people tend to suffer from “an inability to understand that other people know, want, feel, or believe things.”

Oh, wait, that’s right. DeThorne didn’t say that. In an article defending autistic people against accusations of being unable to empathize, she used that quote to describe the stereotype non-autistic people harbor about us.

Let’s just jump straight to the part where this stereotype ISN’T TRUE.

I realize that for some neurotypicals, that guy you met that one time may be more compelling than, for instance, this article from Scientific American. I also realize that if this is how you think, you’re probably not reading this blog. So let’s just take it as a given that autistic people can be empathetic.

Let’s also grant the fact that some neurotypical people can be occasionally, breathtakingly oblivious to the needs and feelings of those around them.

And then, because they’re neurotypical, they get to NOT BE DEFINED BY THAT.

Let’s circle back to coffee or lack thereof at my father-in-law’s house, shall we?

So far as I can tell, he’s about as neurotypical as they come. Which, as I may have made clear by now, isn’t necessarily a compliment coming from me. But in this case, there’s no malice. I’m just pointing out a fact.

I have learned that when we drive the hour it takes to get to my father-in-law’s house, I need to either bring my own coffee or ask loudly and repeatedly and clearly for it. Because although my father-in-law knows very well how long it takes to get from our home to his, he has never once in the history of ever offered us a drink when we arrive. 

Summoning all my patience and of course empathy, I would occasionally mention this to my spouse on the drive home.


Spouse (sighing): Yes?

Me: We were there for HOURS.

Spouse (sighing again): I know.

Me: He didn’t offer us ANYthing to drink. NOTHING.

Spouse: Well, he –


Spouse: I know.

Me: What do I have to do – make a sign?

Spouse: I don’t think that’s –

Me: Or maybe a life-size outline of the human body with “60% WATER” written on it? Is that the subtle kind of hint he might pick up, do you think?

Spouse: Do you want to stop at a bar on the way home?

I didn’t. Like Dracula, I never drink…wine. Or any other kind of alcohol. 

What I wanted was a glass of water – or a cup of tea, or, when I developed a taste for that rather late in life, a cup of coffee. And I wanted them from my father-in-law. The guy we’d just schlepped all the way across county lines to see.

What I really wanted was equality.

Some time back, Oliver Sacks wrote a profile of Temple Grandin for the New Yorker. When Sacks went to visit her, he “kept hoping” she would offer him some coffee. When she didn’t, he finally asked for some. 

Sacks dedicated an entire paragraph in his profile to how, ermagerd, she didn’t. Even. OFFER. A cup of coffee! When CLEARLY she should have noticed he wanted one! He’d traveled a long way! He’d missed lunch! Which I kind of think is on him, but what do I know!

Anyway. When Grandin failed to offer coffee and went on to speak at length about her field to the fellow scientist who’d visited her on purpose to learn more about her work, the prevailing attitude was: “Can you BELIEVE those wacky autistic people? They don’t understand the most basic human needs! They have no empathy whatsoever!” 

When my father-in-law doesn’t offer beverages because he’s too busy saying stuff that, just for the record, we’ve heard approximately nine jillion times before, it’s, “Well, that’s Dad for you.”

The last time I was there, I decided to be a grownup and not passive-aggressively wait to be offered a beverage. I decided to ask for what I wanted, pleasantly but firmly. 

About twenty minutes into our visit, in what seemed to be a natural break in the conversation, I said, “Hey – Mom? Dad? Could I bug you for a cup of coffee?”

They’ve visited me in the past. I have made coffee for them. And sat having a cup of my own at the same table. This will be relevant in a moment.

Looking a little surprised but perfectly friendly, my stepmother-in-law agreed. We went into the kitchen. My father-in-law decided he’d rather stay talking to my husband and son so he could finish his usual seven-hour screed on What Exactly Is Wrong With The World Dang Nab It.

I asked again for a cup of coffee. My stepmother-in-law said, “I know you love tea, right?”

I do, but I also love coffee and this afternoon I really needed the caffeine. I said as much. “Coffee would be great if you’ve got it,” I added.

They did have it. She said as much. 

She made me a cup of tea.

An hour later, we all went into the kitchen and my father-in-law made a cup of coffee for himself. Just himself. I had to ask for one. AGAIN.

I’m sure you’re dying to know, so: yes. I got a cup this time. FINALLY.

Stepmother-in-law: I thought you wanted tea!

Me: I asked for coffee.

S: You love tea!

Me: And I also love coffee! That’s why I asked for some! And I’d love some now! As long as you’re making some!

S: Oh.

Just to sum up: Oliver Sacks LAMBASTED Temple Grandin for talking for a solid hour (or so he claims) without offering beverages. This, he insisted, was clear evidence that autistic folks are socially clueless blathermouths without even the most basic level of empathy for our fellow humans.

My father-in-law did not get up to make me a cup of coffee even when asked to because he wanted to finish his monologue.

My stepmother-in-law, who for the record is NOT neurodivergent, made me a cup of tea when I asked for a cup of coffee.

They get to be themselves: unique neurotypical individuals.

Meanwhile,I offer a selection beverages and fresh-baked refreshments to anyone who even walks BY my apartment, let alone steps inside. 

And I’m one of those socially inept, unempathetic autistic people.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say neurotypicals have a bad habit of cherry-picking evidence that supports their pre-existing biases. 

But that wouldn’t be very fair of me, would it? I mean, they’re not ALL like that.

Actually? I’m pretty sure they are.

3 thoughts on “Coffee, tea, or empathy?

  1. I don’t know what to think of your in-laws. Asking upon arrival on your next visit? Asking if you could make it yourself? I mean good gravy, this is normal host etiquette; offer something to drink to your guests. I mean, I continue venting while doing exactly that when guests come over- So I was telling this butthead, oh, water, juice, um, lemonade, or hot tea. Juice? I have pineapple and mango juice. Oh, you would rather have water? Anyway, this butthead couldn’t understand, wait. Cold water or room temperature with or without ice? And I had already explained multiple times, yes, let’s take your water in the living room where we can be comfortable. Here’s a coaster for your glass. And…

    Of course, I’m also fond of saying to people that I think of as family as, help yourself, and I’ll walk you through anything you might be curious about (where are the glasses? do you have a water filtering pitcher? where is the ice? etc)

    Doesn’t that seem like a normal thing to do? I mean, I’m making your point, and I know it.

    But I would like to point out the “oh that’s just dad (for you)!” is defining him by that action.But again, not all dads are like this, so that defeats my comment.

    And as much as I like reading books by Oliver Sacks, I can’t fathom why he was defining Ms. Grandin by one action and trying to apply it to all people with Autism. I mean, not all redheads are autistic (wait, that might be a bad example in your case), or people who study animal behavior, or people who like flash western outfits, all things that apply to Ms. Grandin.

    How about all poor hosts tend to be male? Or all ranting older people tend to be poor hosts?

    I can only surmise that they finally figured out you like hot tea, and then your MIL was thrown for a loop when you asked for coffee, and thought she didn’t understand you in the moment. But if I said to someone, oh you like this type of drink, and they responded, but not today, I would like this other type of drink, I would really try to accommodate my guest.

    So the lesson learned here is not all neurotypical people listen very well.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You asked for a coffee yet were supplied with a cup of tea, but only because your stepmother-in-law thought you loved tea. Maybe she was trying to please you too much. The point is that sometimes neurotypical people think that they are doing the right thing by choosing what we think is best, rather than listening to what is asked for.
    As for Mr. Sasks, he cannot have been giving Miss Grandin 100% attention, if he was thinking about a beverage! Were his basic needs more important than listening to what was being said??

    Great post and very interesting to digest (if that is the correct word) !

    Liked by 1 person

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