A Thin Line

by Brenda Rothman

Jack picks up bits of banana muffin, brown crumbs falling onto his red sweatshirt.  He tilts his head to the side, chewing, looking off.  The sun is shining into the breakfast room, but still the tile must be wedged against the cold ground.  I’m weighing the pros and cons of sheepskin versus fur-lined boots because, even though I’m wearing unfashionable but rigid Skecher Viagras, my feet are still cold.  Dang cold.

After clicking on a few laptop keys, I read the headlines.  Earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.  Over on Facebook, friends leave statuses about the devastation and the horrific videos.  On Twitter, messages fly about relief efforts.  I close the laptop with a click.  Jack stops chewing.  “Why?,” he asks.

I won’t be watching the videos of the disaster in Japan.  I won’t be watching the news.  It’s not that I have no empathy.  I have too much.  When I watch film footage of disasters, my feelings overwhelm me and have nowhere to go.  I feel anxious, sad, distressed.  My heart drags down, my muscles burn, and my skin feels raw.  I see the people and think, I am you.  I can see me in your shoes, devastated, wrecked.  I feel for you.  I feel with you.

My heart has a very thin line between me and you.

It’s the same reason I don’t watch local news.  The waves of tragedy, the lives lost every day on this planet are heartbreaking.  I have to find my balance.  I have to heal my heart, protect it.  I have to actively direct it to the exuberant, the blissful, the carefree.

I have to breathe.

However, I can read the accounts of the Japanese disaster.  Reading the tragedy lets me process the news, without being overwhelmed.  Does reading go through a different neural pathway?  Does it slow down my emotional reaction?  Does one processing mode at a time (language processing) help, rather than several (imagery and sound) modes?  Is it that I can stop when it gets too much? I don’t know.  I found the one that works for me.

And, naturally since I am pondering input, the brain, and emotions, I think of my son.  Is this what it’s like for him?  Not just processing sensory input, but information and everyday experiences.  Is this why he likes to read books, but not watch movies?  Is this why he likes me to retell stories of his own emotional events over and over?  Is this why when he experiences something frightening, he immediately wants to play it out over and over?

There’s a very thin line between our own emotions and empathy.  I hate reading that children with autism lack empathy.  It drives me batty.  Because it makes them sound like they don’t care about others.  That they lack something intrinsically human.  That they tune out others on purpose.  And none of those are true.  None! N.O.N.E.  Children with autism are often overwhelmed by emotions.  They have trouble sorting out their emotions and trouble expressing them.  When you can’t sort out your own feelings in your body and your own emotions, and you’re can’t even tell someone about it, you certainly don’t have time to look at someone else.  It’s not lack of empathy, it’s a lack of task management.  It’s “I’m overwhelmed!”  It’s “I’m feeling too much!”  It’s “I can’t process it all!”

Original experiences can overwhelm Jack.  But we’ve found a way for him to process them emotionally, to make sense of his world. It’s not just soothing and comforting him at the time of a scary moment.  It’s finding a way for him to integrate the experience, to understand his reactions, and to recover from the trouble.  The time Aunt Jenny foofed a trash bag?  Yep, that’s a story and a game.  The time cousin Nubar zipped the seatbelt fast?  Yep, story and a game.  The time we went to Great-Grandpop’s funeral?  Story and game.  The time Jack heard a funeral siren at the playground and all the kids yelled, Somebody’s DYING!  Definitely a game.

You and I find different ways to process emotions, but we do it mostly through language.  Through talking with each other, writing each other, reading each other’s words.  It’s hard for us adults to remember that kids, typical kids and our kids with autism, don’t integrate experiences through talk.  They integrate experiences through play.  Through recreating the event with stuffed animals or dolls.  Or with each other.  Through a retelling of the story over and over.  Kids feel a loss of power and control when they go through a frightening event.  I’m not talking specifically disasters.  With our kids with autism, frightening can be a plastic bag flying through the air, a specific noise that bothers them, or talk about death (see previous foofing, zipping, and dying).  When kids feel a loss of power, playing lets them regain power over the event, so they can integrate it into their file folder of experiences.  Playing gives them power.  It’s why Jack tells me “You be Jack  and I’ll be Aunt Jenny foofing the bag.”  It’s why Jack tells me “You be Jack and I’ll be Nubar zipping the seatbelt.”  Being in charge of the scariness through play gives him a way to process and reprocess, to understand what happened and why, to figure out his role in the event, and to sort out his reactions.

I won’t be watching what happened in Japan.  But my heart goes out to those in Japan and to everyone with family or friends there.  I pray for their health, safety, and quick recovery.  I hope they’ll be able to rediscover bliss soon, to breathe, … to play soon.

About the Author: Brenda Rothman, the mother of an autistic son, writes about autism, parenting, and shoes on her blog Mama Be Good http://mamabegood.blogspot.com/. Brenda is also on Twitter @mamabegood, where she enjoys margatweetas, and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mamabegood, where she spills coffee creamer.

All images are the exclusive property of Brenda Rothman and Mama Be Good and are protected under the United States and International Copyright laws. The images may not be reproduced, copied, transmitted or manipulated without the written permission of Brenda Rothman at Mama Be Good. © 2009 – 2012 Mama Be Good.

A Thin Line first appeared on Brenda’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.

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One thought on “A Thin Line

  1. Belfast says:

    In terms of what I can bear emotionally, there are things I can say but cannot write, there are things I can write but cannot say. Just as there are things I can read but cannot watch, and vice versa.

    Different sensory modes for communication (both the receptive and expressive varieties) work for different people in different circumstances.
    We each have unique (idiosyncratic, individual) tolerance levels (preferred channels/conduits) for a given category of stimuli.

    The broader topic of experiencing excessive sensory (and emotional) sensitivity, esp. with regards to ASD, is under-studied, in my opinion.

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