After my final poem in April, a few people asked me to share a bit more about what it’s like to either be Autistic or to be the parent of someone with Autism. My kids and I were all diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (back when there was such a diagnosis). This is the only form of Autism that is hereditary, by the way.
I guess the easiest way for me to explain our brains is like this: When you have a head cold, it can be mild, moderate, or severe. You’ll have coughing, a runny nose, a stuffy nose, sneezing, and a fever. Or you might have no coughing, but lots of sneezing and a high fever. Or you might have a completely stuffy nose, a low fever, and a lot of coughing. But aside from the runny and stuffy nose being complete opposites, all the symptoms may be present at the same time or just a few, and in varying degrees.
Autism is kind of like that but on a MUCH grander scale. For example, there are probably over a hundred symptoms that I could think of, and not all of them are present in everyone. And there are many more levels of each symptom than just mild, moderate, or severe. If, in each single symptom, you numbered 1 to 100, and said that between 45 to 55 are considered the “normal range” for people with “regular brains,” those of us with Autism may range anywhere between 1 and 100, and on several of them, we’ll likely still be in the “normal range.”
One of the “biggies” in the long list of symptoms is lack of empathy. A very rare occurrence in Asperger’s Syndrome, however, is having an excessive amount of empathy. Now, in my household, this is one of the (many) ways my children and I differ greatly. You see, my kids are both incapable of empathy, and I have so much it can be debilitating. Actually, I am what’s considered an “empath,” which, if you are interested, you can read about at http://themindunleashed.org/2013/10/30-traits-of-empath.html. But as for my kids, they don’t mean to hurt other people’s feelings; they just honestly don’t realize that other people even have feelings. The hard part of this to digest is they do get hurt feelings themselves and quite frequently, actually. But even the way they express their hurt feelings is very different. Stefani will cry, scream, lash out, turn on and attack the offender, get even, and hold a grudge. Jeremy will become introverted, get quiet, go someplace where he can be alone, and refuse to discuss the matter further, then he’ll get over it.
It’s not easy having so much empathy myself knowing I gave birth to two cold robots who could care less if I live or die (which is how they can seem at times). The truth is, I know they both love me in their own way, but they just don’t realize how they come off. For example, one time Stefani ran away from home and was gone for several weeks when Jeremy was a young teenager. I was so worried, frustrated, angry, hurt, upset, and hopeless, that I just had a meltdown and started sobbing. Jeremy, upon seeing me cry, started giggling. Why? Because my face looked funny, it had turned red, water was leaking out of my eyes, my nose was getting stuffy, I was making a weird noise, etc. The act of crying looked funny to him. It wasn’t because he was cold and insensitive to my feelings about his sister… he just didn’t realize I had any feelings at all and couldn’t grasp why I was doing that “funny thing” to my face. He wasn’t being mean; his brain just didn’t know how to process the external display of my emotions.
I think the easiest way to explain how my kids are with empathy is this: Think back to when you were a teenager and you wanted to do something that your parent or guardian didn’t approve of. What happened? It was probably something like, “No, you’re not leaving the house dressed like that! I’m not going to have the whole town think that I raised a floozy!” And that was answered with, “It’s not about YOU, old woman! All my friends dress this way! You’re so old you don’t even remember what it’s like to be young! You want everyone to make fun of me!” (Well, hopefully you weren’t that mean to your caregiver, but even if you didn’t say it, I bet you at least felt that way at one time or another.)
So in that scenario, the parent made the kid’s wardrobe all about themselves and what people would think of them if they allowed such clothing to be worn. And the kid thought only about themselves thinking of how geeky they’d look if they allowed their parent to dictate what they wore. Both actually had valid points, yet neither realized that the other had any weight to their argument at all, and both likely thought the other was being mean and/or selfish. Both felt the other was being contradictory for the sole purpose of embarrassing them. They each made it completely about themselves. I know this isn’t the greatest example, but it’s about as close as I can think of, and unless you actually know someone with a complete absence of empathy, you may not understand.
If you can’t wrap your head about that, just think about cats. They allow you the privilege to feed them and occasionally even to pet them. But on their timetable. Otherwise, they’ll scratch your eyes out without giving you a second thought. But they love you — on their own schedule, of course.
At any rate, I’ll try to come in once a month or so with more on the wide world of Autism if you like, and hopefully you may find some of it useful. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!