I feel sorry for those who think autistics have no ability to empathize. In my case at least, Apsperger’s left me too vulnerable to the emotions of others.
When I was a little girl, I smiled until my face hurt. I was nowhere near as delighted as the constant smile seemed to indicate, but I was not miserable either. The unrelenting smile was, I now believe, the product of rigid autistic thinking had led me to a false conclusion that like everything else in my world, there was a correct and incorrect path. Blocks must be stacked in a certain formation, there were right and wrong answers to every imaginable question. By that admittedly skewed, reasoning , the same principal must have applied to emotion. There was one correct emotion: happiness, which was always expressed with a smile.
I would not describe this way of thinking as healthy. I wasn't simply irked when an adult or another child would refuse to comply with my orders to smile, I was furious and terrified and would not, could not, calm down until they did. What complicated matters more then, and continues to complicate them to this day is my impaired ability to read facial expressions and body language. Like many autistic people, I’m capable of seeing macro-expressions , broad smiles, uncontrollable tooth-grinding rage, but more subtle expressions remain a mystery to me. I still can’t tell if the not-entirely happy person next to me is mourning the loss of a beloved friend or the loss of a nail tip they just had manicured. Although I’m better equipped to handle all the input as an adult than I was as a child, between the sensory overload of loud music, bright lights, forced conversation (especially that autistic bête noir, the inescapable natter of small talk.) my sensory processing abilities are already taxed. On top of all that I often feel people feeling at me. Whether they notice my presence or not, I notice theirs, and my ability to process their emotions, the origin and nature of which I still have difficulty interpreting, causes me distress.
It’s a mistake to confuse an inability to sense with an inability to care.To the extent that I am able to resonate with other people’s emotions, I care intently. Further I am aware that I am not aware of what people are feeling and compensate by the seemingly simple but actually complex method of inquiring.
I don’t like to think about that part of my life. I have never written about it. But I recently had a conversation with one of son’s teachers that sent chills down my spine. She told me about a little girl with the same diagnosis as mine, Aspergers. Like me she has always been verbal, but when someone she cares for does not produce a smile that lives up to her expectations she will crawl up on their lap and try to force their lips into what she considers a properly happy expression. I remember doing that .
My autistic son is minimally verbal, but there is no doubt in my mind that his empathy is as powerful of as that of those who can articulate it. He’s been using what words he has to ask me if our cats are happy. He’s been asking his teachers if a particularly close friend of his in school is happy. Not curiously or occasionally, but frantically and repetitively. No amount of reassurance seems to soothe him for more than a moment when he gets into one of these loops. Medication helps. We also have high hopes for social stories, and since we want to teach him that he has some power to influence others positively we make suggestions about concrete things he can do to help. Finally, we emphasize the transitory nature of emotion. I suspect the notion that whatever is going on in a given moment will last forever is a common autistic fear. I have it too. So when he seems to be frightened by his own reactions to others’ emotions, I stroke his hair and I remind him that smiles and frowns are like rain and sunshine. Neither lasts forever. Just when you think the weather cannot ever change, it does.
I have faith in in my son to resolve this confusion just as he has conquered other perplexing aspects of a world not tailored to his needs, but he’ll need help. He needs to learn that he does have power, not to change the weather of people’s moods, but to react to them in a compassionate yet not all-consuming way. I am working on that skill myself, very slowly improving, but I believe his prospects are better than mine. What I do know from my own experience in this realm, and what I strongly believe when I observe him, is that pushing for greater empathy in an already hyper-empathetic child will not help and might even cause more distress and confusion for him. Empathy he’s got. Boundaries are what he needs. Shoring up some kind of emotional self-defense in one of the most caring children I can imagine, that’s what all of us who love him will spend the next few years doing. As parenting tasks go, I think it beats the hell out of trying to foment empathy where an exhausting abundance already exists.