You know the claim that Asperger Syndrome (AS) personalities have no empathy? Well, I don’t buy it.
Years ago, a little boy harassed by neighbor kids was told by local buddies to “get lost.” Almost immediately, my son, Henry, spoke up to defend that kid’s right to stick around.
What no one knew at the time was that both the victim and his defender, long after, would be diagnosed as “Aspies.” Henry repeatedly rose to the defense not only of the much more marginalized kid, but of other targets of rejection, often at risk of rejection, himself. In some ways, he seems to have a more sensitive spirit than many “neurotypical” peers when it comes to defending the oppressed.
Yet I can see why, even with Henry, the “empathy challenged” label can be tempting. When a close relative fought against a deadly disease, the relative was deeply wounded that Henry, by then a teenager, never said a word. No “I’m so sorry for you.” No “how are you doing?” No “can I do something for you?” It’s easy to feel at times with Aspies that they could care less if you conk over on the spot. When frustrated at such external impressions, even I at times think he’d only be upset if I up and died during the Super Bowl, as that would be such an inconvenient intrusion.
What our sick relative didn’t know was that when Henry got wind of the illness, he blurted out suddenly, “Don’t tell me about it! I don’t want to know!” As the person on the planet who reads him best, I knew this was not “don’t bother me, I don’t care!” It was, “don’t freak me out! I’m anxious about it already, and don’t know what to do!”
As for caring generally, he also has shown bursts of sensitivity that reveal endearing capacity for attachment and responsiveness. Long before I noted peers doing so, he carefully downloaded favorite music of a couple of buddies to burn on discs he custom-designed for them. This required attentiveness to their listening habits, mental recall, a sense that such a gift would bring them joy, and the time and energy to produce the final product.
I’ve concluded that for AS personalities, the issue is much more a matter of brain than heart. Their minds just don’t “get” signs of others’ grief, fear, anxiety or even joy and affection. How can their hearts respond to what is not seen or understood?
As for our relationship, I realize a mom can be a real pain to any adultish child, perhaps especially when pushing for competencies sabotaged by Asperger neurology. That perception triggered my own perhaps odd reaction last Mother’s Day when Henry gave me a card (yea! connecting move!). “Thank you! How very nice!” I responded to gushy Hallmark language citing my fabulous traits! But then I noted that there are likely some days – those prodding-Mom moments – when he doesn’t think I’m so wonderful.
“Not many,” he said quietly. Not many days he doesn’t treasure his Mom, despite the difficult journey. This came as a very welcome surprise, given emotions locked so tightly within AS personalties. His response was, perhaps, assisted by the Aspie preference for authenticity and verbalized thoughts. Whatever, it was welcome gift to this Mom’s heart, and now helps me better intuit warmth and gratitude so rarely expressed.
For me, that Mother’s Day moment was deeply moving – confirmation that more than Henry shows, love of his family for him does penetrate his awareness.
That reality offers enormous potential as our journey continues for reinforcing strength and diluting inadequacies not just for Henry, but for all the interconnected personalities in this family.