Noah is, like most seven year old boys, a perplexing mix of tender and tough. And I don’t mean tough in the “Brush yourself off, get out there and do it again” way. No. In fact, it usually takes us a good 20 minutes of convincing before Noah, who believes that everything can be done once, and done perfectly, will make another effort at ANYTHING. (He told me once he’d “already mastered the piano.” He’s yet to play so much as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”)
When I say tough, I mean tough in the “Grace! Take your glasses off before you eat!” way. (We haven’t fully plumbed the depths of this aversion, but we know he has a “thing” with glasses – a “thing” potent enough to cause him to gag and scream at his sister during mealtimes). I mean tough like, “Jesse! You are a BAD baby! Bad, bad, bad!” I mean tough in the “You are so mediocre!” way.
Sometimes, he is positively robotic. “Noah! How are you? How was your day at school?” “Fine, mother.” He says this straight faced, with nary a smile or blinked eye. He says this like he is choosing ketchup over mustard with his hotdog, like there is not another person attached to the interaction. Other times, he is nearly vicious (see above).
And sometimes, he is so tender he astounds me. Take for instance the letter he intends to leave for Santa this year – something he wrote un-prompted, that was quickly followed by a collection of his outgrown toys “for children who have less than me.”
Noah is often described as the “kindest little boy I know.” And he is. He is loving, he is charitable, he is generous. But his kindness is often outstripped by his lack of understanding.
Ours is not the struggle some parents of Aspie kids have, that complete absence of emotional expression with blank stares and flat affects and Spock-ian tendencies. Ours isn’t a journey on which we try to teach Noah HOW to feel. Ours is one of helping Noah understand WHEN an emotion fits a situation, and WHAT impact his actions have on another person’s emotions. How do you cram an understanding spirit into a child whose soul is already bursting with the burden of feeling so much?
Noah can express sympathy – that harmony of feeling existing between persons of like opinions or positions. What he lacks is empathy – the capacity to identify with or vicariously experience the feelings of another. The mind-blindness of our Aspie children is one of those quiet burdens we parents feel so deeply. To quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no THERE, there.” There is no “getting it” when I tell Noah, “Why would you make fun of Isaac for wearing glasses? How would you feel if you had to wear glasses and someone made fun of you?” What I get in response is something of this flavor: “I wouldn’t care.”
In her autobiography “A Thorn in My Pocket” (Future Horizons, 2004), Temple Grandin’s mother Eustacia Cutler writes “Considering these wicked neural bites – concepts, context, eye signals, empathy – it’s not surprising that the life of a person with autism may end up being one of self-absorption. This can be a bit of a heartbreak for parents. When autistic children have been taught how to react in an emotionally appropriate way, we tend to assume an empathy that perhaps isn’t possible. That’s when we get hurt.”
Perhaps. Isn’t. Possible. Under the wash of a bedside table lamp, later than I should have been awake, I read this passage last night. The thought that Noah may forever lack the capability to feel what others feel – to put himself in their shoes – clawed at my mother’s heart like a rabid animal.
What I have learned on this journey with Noah is that some things may NEVER be possible. This is the highest hurdle Matt and I have encountered. What if the things he cannot do bar him from the life we hope he can someday live? What if he is outcast, or ignored, or bullied? Reinforcing the actions he must take – whether he can do them or not – seems about as logical as getting on a treadmill, and thinking I’ll make it all the way to California. But I reinforce them anyway.
Even if it takes his learning a concept he cannot originally devise on his own, I must show Noah what is right. He is mine to steward, and his training in the “way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6) falls to Matt and me. There is no scriptural exception for Noah. No caveat, “Unless he cannot do it.” If Noah cannot FEEL empathy, he must learn to mimic it.
Then, perhaps the practice of doing that thing will, for his future self, be enough.