Social Skills

by Ettina

I think most of the research into social skills is screwy. The reason? It all assumes you’re interacting with a neurotypical (NT) person. Therefore, ‘good social skills’ refers to good understanding of NTs, while ‘poor social skills’ refers to poor understanding of NTs.

Imagine if we defined ‘good language skills’ as ‘speaking English well’. A celebrated Swedish author, who writes compelling and interesting books but whose English is very poor, would be considered to have poor language skills. I hope everyone can see the problem with that. The same problem arises when we describe ‘good social skills’ in terms of ability to relate well to NTs.

I think there are two distinct sets of social skills. One is the ability to ‘put yourself in another person’s shoes’ and imagine how you’d feel in their situation, and use that to decide how to treat them. This works well if the person you’re interacting with is similar to you, not so well if they’re quite different from you. Most NTs use this set of skills quite heavily, because most people they meet are similar enough for it to apply fairly well.

The second set of skills is the ability to set aside your own perspective and pay attention to the other person, to figure out what they’re thinking and feeling by observation. This is more laborious and inconvenient, but it works with anyone, no matter how much they differ from you. Most NTs seldom get a chance to learn these skills, unless they travel to another culture, form a close bond with an animal (merely having a pet doesn’t necessarily count), or befriend someone with a developmental disability.

For autistics, and for many other people described as having ‘poor social skills’, what’s actually going on is quite different. They are different enough from most NTs that ‘putting themselves in other people’s shoes’ frequently leads to the wrong response – such as a 10 year old regaling his classmates with facts about cockroach biology on the assumption that they’ll find it just as fascinating as he does. With time and effort, they learn to stop putting themselves in other people’s shoes, and instead use the second, harder set of social skills a lot.

I think both sets of skills are important. Being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, when appropriate, results in a far deeper experience of empathy for that person, and gives you a very rich knowledge base to interact with them. And though it’s easier than the second set of skills, it does take a certain degree of self-understanding to be able to match up someone else’s experience to your own and figure out what would have been helpful to you in that situation.

And the second set of skills is important in understanding diversity, in seeing the rich variety of experience for what it is. It’s also, I think, important for social scientists, who use similar strategies even when dealing with their own ‘kind’ of people. And it’s important because even NTs can’t always avoid interacting with people who are different from them. You may find that circumstances throw you unexpectedly into a situation of bridging difference, such as when a new mother is told that her child has a developmental disability.

Atypical kids often learn the second set but not the first set. This means that they learn to see interaction in general as difficult and confusing. It also means that they have more trouble developing self-understanding, because they don’t get to form links between their own experience and what they see in others. Alexithymia, the inability to name or identify your own emotions, is commonly associated with autism. I suspect most kids learn to label emotions by having adults correctly recognize and label their own emotions as they’re feeling them (which is harder when the adults are struggling to bridge a difference between themselves and the child), and by empathizing with others while hearing people label the others’ emotions (which is harder when you wouldn’t feel that way in that situation). Spending time with people who are ‘like you’ is very important to understanding yourself.

Which brings me to the topic of integration vs segregation. Atypical kids, in order to succeed in life, need to learn skills for relating to NTs. And segregation is often used as a way to deny a proper education and enable discriminatory practices – no ‘proper people’ see it who aren’t participating in it, and the children don’t see counter-examples to make them question it. But on the other hand, segregated spaces are important, since they allow atypical people to connect with others who are more similar to them. The solution, I think, is to allow opportunities for both integration and segregation, and to make sure the segregated spaces are voluntary and positive (and preferably organized by the same kind of people who participate in that setting, like Autreat).

Neurotypical people often miss out on learning the second set of skills. Being the majority group, this only causes problems under special circumstances, but it does mean missing out on some of the richness of human diversity. And it can be a serious problem for atypical people, dealing with a society where almost no one knows how to relate to them. Furthermore, as I noted before, NTs can’t always tell when they’ll be thrust into a situation requiring the ability to understand someone very different from themselves.

And here is one of the best arguments for integration – when it’s done well, it gives NT children an opportunity to get to know someone different from most people, and to develop the skills to understand them. That is, when it’s done well. Many times, atypical kids in typical settings are rejected. No one tries to understand them or see their point of view. Instead, they learn that in order to be accepted by the people who matter, they must distance themselves from anyone who doesn’t fit in. I don’t think my classmates in any of my classes learnt anything valuable about relating to autistic kids from knowing me, for example.

Other opportunities are cross-cultural encounters such as exchange programs or simply having immigrants in their social group. Being an immigrant, of course, is a potent way to learn about difference – I remember reading about a father of a high-functioning autistic boy who gained a better understanding of his son after they moved from US to England and he started running into social misunderstandings. Having pets can also be a good experience, but only if you approach your relationship to them with the understanding that they have their own, rich, nonhuman experience of the world. If you anthropomorphize them or else treat them like objects that happen to move around on their own, you won’t gain much in the way of understanding differences.

About the Author: Ettina is a young autistic woman who works to make our society more accepting of diversity. This piece first appeared on her blog, Abnormaldiversity, and is reprinted here by permission.

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Despicable: Joe Scarborough’s Words on Autism and Mass Murder

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

We in the disability community knew it was coming. We’d known it for days.

After a young man in Aurora, Colorado took the lives of 12 people, wounded 58, and left nothing but grief and misery behind him, we knew they’d start rounding up the usual suspects. They always do.

And they did — on the television, in the newspapers, and on the Internet. Pundits, reporters, and ordinary people all decided one thing: He must have been mentally ill. After all, how could a sane person do such a thing?

It’s as though utterly ordinary people don’t do atrocious, violent, unthinkable things every day of the week. I sometimes wonder whether people in this country are aware of the sheer level of violence that goes on all over the world, every minute of every day, perpetrated by folks who are neither mentally ill nor delusional. And I sometimes wonder why the message hasn’t gotten through that most mentally ill or delusional people never harm anyone — except perhaps themselves.

And then I remember: Oh yeah. People love a scapegoat. So, hey, they figure, let’s go after some of the most vulnerable, stigmatized people out there. Let’s choose people who are the victims of crime far, far more often than they are the perpetrators. Let’s choose people on the margins, without a lot of power. Let’s choose people who have already been kicked to the gutter. Yeah. Let’s do that. The hell with them. They’re not worth much anyway.

And, by all means, let’s ignore the fact that most of the people who commit these crimes have two things in common: they are young and they are men. God forbid that we should ask ourselves, What are we doing to our young men that makes them do such things? What are we teaching them? What are we not teaching them? No. It has to be someone else — that crazy person over there. Not my son. Not my neighbor. Not someone I might chat with on my front porch. Someone else. Someone other.

I saw it beginning to happen. And then there was more. I saw people in You Tube videos and in the comments on news sites opining that the shooter must have been autistic — as though that would explain it. It was disturbing to read, but I thought, You know, Rachel, you can’t get upset with every ignorant person with an Internet connection and a YouTube account. Don’t give them your energy. I figured that the folks whose words I was reading didn’t have that much reach, and I comforted myself in the knowledge that people were speaking up and countering the ignorance with information. It was an uneasy kind of comfort, but it was comfort nonetheless.

And then I woke up this morning, and I read what had come out of Joe Scarborough’s mouth. On Morning Joe, an MSNBC program with an audience of millions of viewers, Joe decided that it was time to join the He Must Be Autistic chorus. According to an article on Politico.com:

“You don’t want to generalize,” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said today before saying that James Holmes, the suspected Aurora, Colo., shooter, was “on the autism scale.”

“As soon as I hear about this shooting, I knew who it was. I knew it was a young, white male, probably from an affluent neighborhood, disconnected from society — it happens time and time again. Most of it has to do with mental health; you have these people that are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale,” said Scarborough, whose son has Asperger’s syndrome. “I don’t know if that’s the case here, but it happens more often than not. People that can walk around in society, they can function on college campuses — they can even excel on college campuses — but are socially disconnected.”

Whenever I hear the phrase You don’t want to generalize, I brace for impact, because I know that what’s about to come next is a disaster. In this case, the disaster was, as my kid would say, epic. The disaster consisted of two bombshells falling to earth, one right after another, and blowing to smithereens the hard work of autism advocacy carried out by thousands of autistic people, autism parents, and autism professionals.

First, there is the absolutely false idea that people who commit mass murder are on the autism spectrum. According to Joe, it happens more often than not. What? Where’s the evidence? Oh, right. There isn’t any. Because it’s not true. There has never been any evidence what-so-fucking-ever that autism is associated with criminal violence. It makes me feel sick to even have to counter this nonsense, but I have to, because now, millions of people are going to believe it.

And then, there’s the image of autistic people who can “walk around in society” looking like everyone else, putting together respectable GPAs, and seeming so utterly, utterly ordinary, until one day — well, you know. I’d like to take this moment to thank Joe for representing autistic people, in the popular mind, as ticking time bombs. Well done, Joe! I’m sure the next ethical, talented, gentle autistic young man who doesn’t get a job because the hiring manager thinks he might be the next office shooter will thank you. Maybe he’ll even name his kid after you. And what about the shy kid with Asperger’s who already has difficulty making friends? What will happen to him with such falsehoods circulating in the world he inhabits? And what of older autistic people, heading into their elder years facing exclusion and ignorance? What about them?

I wonder sometimes. Do people like Joe Scarborough know what it means to be that stigmatized? Do they have any idea of the fear it engenders in people? Do they have any idea of how it tears at the heart?

I don’t know. But I do know this: We can’t let such things go without protest. So please, let Joe Scarborough and the folks at MSNBC know how you feel by leaving your comments  at the Morning Joe feedback page. And remember to sign my online petition asking Joe Scarborough and MSNBC to issue a full retraction of Joe’s remarks.

Please add your voice to the outcry. Thank you.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

This post first appeared on Disability and Representation: Changing the Cultural Conversation on Monday, July 23, 2012.

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Emotional Reciprocity

by Gavin Bollard

This last weekend has been a really tough one for our family. We had to have our dog of nearly twelve years, Panda, put down last Saturday.

To make matters worse, nobody was expecting it. One day, she was “chirpy” and seemed to be in perfectly good health, and the next she was gone. She was in our family for longer than our kids, and she has left a huge hole in our family heart.

I was going to talk about emotional reciprocity today anyway, but last weekend’s events have put a whole new spin on things.

Dealing with Strong Emotions
We all deal with strong emotions, such as love, anger, and grief, in our own ways. My wife tends to cry things out, but I often internalise them and take them on board as stress and, at times, self-harmful behaviour. In the kids, these emotions can manifest as meltdowns or as general destructive behaviour. But sometimes, there’s nothing to see on the surface at all.

The point is that although we each feel these emotions and we feel them at similar strengths, our reactions vary widely both in intensity and visibility.

Quantifying Emotions
For some reason, our society seems to think that it’s okay to quantify emotions based on visible reactions. In my experience, if an event occurs to two people, and the woman is crying while the man is not, then the woman needs the most care and attention because “she’s the one who is really hurt.” The solution is to talk in a quiet voice, and bring lots of cups of tea and chocolates.

The man, by contrast isn’t bawling his eyes out, so he’s obviously not hurt. There’s nothing that you need to do for him. There’s no need to tread lightly because “he’s not even upset.”

In fact, if the event is of an appropriate level — for example the death of a loved one — then anyone not outwardly grieving is “fair game.” You can take things out on them, and you’re more or less expected to say “What’s wrong with you, man?” The words “you don’t care” should also be used in conversation to him.

Sound familiar?

It’s something that many neurotypicals do, and yet so few realise how wrong it is.

Pain on the Spectrum
What if I said that this wasn’t really about men and women? It’s about everyone in general and people on the spectrum in particular.

We use our own perception of other people’s emotions to determine our response.

Too often, I hear of neurotypical partners describing the husbands as uncaring, unemotional, and cold. Autism research alleges that people on the spectrum sometimes feel less physical pain than others (based on their reactions), and even children on the spectrum are sometimes considered to have a disconnection to the pain of others.

What if all of the reasearchers are just reading the signs wrong?

There’s strong evidence in the online community that this is exactly the case. People with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome can lack facial expression and tone, but don’t lack emotions. In fact, we are very empathetic beings — sometimes even more empathetic that neurotypicals in terms of what we feel. Our problems are with the interpretation and the display of outward signs.

One Last Example
The day after the Panda died, there was a conversation right in front of me about how useless I am at doing “manly things” around the house. It’s true. I really am useless at fixing things around the house. I didn’t react badly, and I wasn’t obviously sad, so there was no need for anyone to hold back.

It was hard to keep suicidal thoughts out of my head for the rest of the day, because that’s how I deal with pain. Fortunately, I know that I’m needed in my family and I know that depression is part of Asperger’s. I can reject those dark feelings because I know they’re part of the condition.

It’s a good lesson to friends, parents, and spouses everywhere. Maybe your child or husband doesn’t display a lot of emotion (that you can detect) but everything you say is being noted. If you know that there is good cause for emotion, there’s no reason to assume that simply because you personally can’t detect it, it isn’t there.

Treat everyone in a possible emotional state carefully and you’ll reduce the likelihood of a meltdown.

About the Author: Gavin Bollard is an adult with Asperger’s and the father of two Aspie sons. This piece originally appeared on his blog, Life with Asperger’s, on June 20, 2011 and is reprinted here by permission.

Introversion and Autism

by Ettina

Here’s an e-mail I sent to the author of a book I read:

In your book The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child, you describe autistic people (I use that term broadly, including Asperger’s Syndrome and PDD-NOS) in a way that is, in my opinion, damaging and discriminatory.

I am autistic. I am also introverted. I don’t think I have heard of a single autistic who isn’t introverted. Introversion is a near-universal characteristic of autistic, though of course not all introverts are autistic. Autistic people also have a number of other traits, which are not any better or worse than normal, just different.

You describe autistics in the following manner:

Autism and Asperger’s Disorders. These syndromes reflect a cluster of symptoms that include problems in communication and relating to others, and the display of repetitive behaviors. In the film Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman portrayed a character with severe autism. Autistic children lack age-appropriate friendships, empathy, and an interest in sharing and communicating with others. However, they may have great gifts in specific areas, such as in sequencing numbers and visual processing. Asperger’s Disorder is diagnosed when the child is at a higher level of functioning. Studies indicate various brain areas that are affected, but as yet there is little certain about the causes or the cure for these conditions. Because an introverted child may seem disinclined to socialize, parents may suspect autism… But introversion and autism are very different issues. Introverted children have normal social relationships and form close attachments with parents and with peers. Introverts do not exhibit the repetitive behavior, such as rocking or head banging, that characterizes autism. Nor do innies display the uncanny ‘savant’ quality of, say, being able to recall random lists of numbers that sometimes signals these conditions.

Firstly, it seems like you are echoing medical terminology. I don’t think in a single instance you described introverts as ‘displaying’ some kind of distinctive behavior.

Empathy is used by autism ‘experts’ in a very distinctive, and in my opinion inaccurate, manner. Autistic people care about other people, it’s just that other people don’t make sense to us. At one point in your book, you say:

Right-brained innies may have a high emotional quotient, or ‘EQ.’ They can imagine themselves in another child’s shoes. This is called having empathy.

That kind of ’empathy’ is based on the assumption that others think like you. I used to think other people thought like me, and as a result most people were completely incomprehensible to me. It was only when I realized that I’m autistic, that my mind is actually different from others, that I began to get some real understanding of others. I’m surprised that a person with a minority temperament would actually think this kind of empathy is really useful. No doubt you’ve had extroverts acting like since they don’t like being alone, you must be dying for company as well. That is ’empathy’ as you describe it. It is only effective if you are interacting with someone who is very similar to you – even so, because no one is exactly the same, this kind of ’empathy’ will cause misunderstandings.

Also, I’d like to point out that autistics don’t have some kind of deficit in social skills. We are simply different. I’ve found that non-autistic people have, if anything, more difficulty understanding autistics than we do them. This is not because of some kind of deficit, simply less practice. Only about 1 out of a 100 people are autistic. That means that non-autistics only rarely meet autistic people, while autistics are constantly meeting nonautistic people. In addition, nonautistics hold the power in society. The oppressed group generally understands the oppressors better than the oppressors understand them.

I do not have the need for interaction that most people do. In fact, I find interaction tiring. Is this really different from introversion? I have read that introverts find interaction tiring and need alone time. Decreased interest in interaction seems therefore to be a typical trait of introverts, though more extreme in autistics. Also, decreased interest in interaction is not synonymous with not caring about others. I care very intensely about other people. I love my parents and younger brother very deeply, as well as my pets and my autistic friend. I also care, on a more abstract level, about all the children who are suffering because they are being told that who they are is not lovable and they must become someone else. You describe that problem regarding forcing extroverted behavior on an introvert. Autistics also experience this, often more pervasively.

One thing I’d like to mention is that since many autistics have an on/off tendency in various areas, they may not be recognized as introverts. Rather than being quiet until they warm up and then becoming interactive, an autistic person may jump into interaction, chattering away eagerly until the interaction is over. Conversely, their rest time is longer. This is just because autistics focus intensely and are slow to shift focus. I may interact happily in a party, only to need to spend the next day at home interacting only with my pets. (You say introverts do well with pets. So do autistics, especially with cats. In many ways, autistic people are like cats. I find it much easier to understand my cats than many people.)

Many traits you describe in introverts are also autistic traits. Autistics have similar patterns in memory as you describe – my memory is highly associative, and if the question doesn’t bring up the right associations I don’t remember the answer. Autistics are picky eaters for some of the same reasons you describe in introverts – increased sensitivity to taste and smell, not noticing hunger, etc.

You describe introverts becoming rigid under stress. Autistics who are under constant, intense pressure (as are many, by well-meaning parents and others who want them to function) become very rigid and black/white in their thinking, this is then taken as an inherent part of autism. If they are given less stress, their thinking ‘magically’ becomes more flexible.

I have seen many books, like yours, which advocate acceptance for a certain mild difference while fervently distancing that difference from other related traits which they consider ‘disorders’. It’s an awful thing to push down others in order to get acceptance for yourself. I try to accept all kinds of people. You should, too.

About the Author: Ettina is a young autistic woman who works to make our society more accepting of diversity. This piece first appeared on her blog, Abnormaldiversity, and is reprinted here by permission.

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The Other Side of Empathy

by Gavin Bollard

Disclaimer: The stance I’ve taken in this post is a bit strong, so I just want to make the point that I’m not blaming either party in a relationship; I’m simply presenting a one-sided argument to counter the many already strong and equally one-sided opposing arguments out there.

It’s a pretty common thing, particularly on discussion boards of ex-wives of Aspies, to see lack of empathy cited as a major issue. In fact, many such posts treat this lack of empathy as the primary cause of marital failure, totally ignoring other factors that lead to break-up.

In this post, I’m going to ignore the traditional views in order to try to look at things from the other side.

The Scenario
It’s been a difficult year for us so far. We thought that things were difficult last year when my son’s middle-aged tutor unexpectedly drowned in her own pool in a “freak accident” on New Year’s Day. Well, this year, it got worse.

The year started off with the death of my wife’s cousin in a horrific motor-scooter accident. He was in his twenties and left a baby behind. Since he was in New Zealand and we’re in Australia, we couldn’t make the funeral.

Then, about a week and a half ago, after a sudden series of strokes, my godfather passed away. He was only a few hours short of his 90th birthday. He was the last of his generation and probably my favourite indirect relative. He died in Queensland, which is a long distance from Sydney. Due to our recent “new house” expenditure, and then difficulty in getting the kids minded, we couldn’t afford to attend the funeral.

About three days after his death, my wife received a phone call from a stranger. He informed her that one of our best friends had suddenly died from an aneurism. She was 43. My wife pulled me out of a meeting at work to tell us that the girl we often referred to as “our other sister” had died. I had no reassuring words for her. All I could do was reiterate that it was a sad thing in my saddest tones. In this case, the funeral was in an even more remote location, and there was never any chance we could attend. Luckily, there’s a remembrance scheduled for later this week.

I thought that I was doing passably well, tiptoeing around my wife and casting sympathetic glances, until a few days later, when my wife angrily retorted, “Well, you haven’t exactly been full of empathy.”

Being on the “sending” end
Many people in any kind of relationship with an Aspie know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of so-called “limited empathy,” but what is the sending end like?

I’m sure that minimal demonstrations of empathy sometimes make our partners think that we’re cold and heartless.

What really irks me, though, is the fact that I haven’t yet shed a tear for any of these people — even though I felt really close to them. I haven’t felt that wave of uncontrollable sadness that sometimes unexpectedly rushes over you when it all catches up.

We aren’t cold emotionless robots and, truth be told, most Aspies are nowhere near the levels described in the literature. Grief, like other emotions, isn’t just a natural part of life, it’s also a major contributor to the healing process. As I write this, I feel like I’m full of poison that can’t be released until I can grieve properly. It’s not that I’m unable to feel emotion.  I can, and it’s often stronger than a typical NT reaction. Unfortunately, I can’t choose the time of its arrival.

I’m sure that I could “make myself feel sadness” if I sat and deliberately pondered on sad things until it caught up to me, but that would be “cheating.” Crocodile tears somehow just don’t make the grade. My “Inner Aspie” has enough issues with the idea of lying to others without my trying to lie to myself. No, it has to be real emotion, and it will come in its own good time, but meanwhile, I’m victimised because my body language isn’t displaying the right signs, and I’m not in a place where I can be the empathetic and supportive husband that my wife needs.

Needing to See
One of my biggest problems is that I need to see and experience an event before I can feel empathy properly. Second- and third-hand accounts do nothing for me. Even now, though mentally I know that I’ve lost these people, I still expect a phone call or a surprise visit. Not attending a funeral makes it impossible to internalize.

I should probably clarify, at this point, that I’m awful at funerals. They are times of intense emotion for me because they bring home, for the first time, painful truths that everyone else has had several days to get used to. I’m frequently reduced to a blubbing mess. It’s on these occasions that I find the NT empathy equation considerably lacking. My wife seems to understand, but I’ve had my mother suggest that I’m “over-reacting” at funerals because I didn’t seem so upset when the tragedy first occurred. It’s like she thinks that I’m crying for attention. I wonder, if my mother, who knows me better than most people, can think this, what does everyone else think?

I know that now I’m in danger of confusing emotion with empathy, so I’ll try to clarify. Crying at a funeral doesn’t necessarily mean that you are feeling empathetic towards others. Often, we’re simply crying over our own personal loss.

What such crying does do however is:

1. Paint us Aspies as human beings, not monsters.

2. Enable us to understand how others may feel.

Internal Feelings
Sometimes, not being able to find the desired emotional response in myself “makes my blood boil.” The worst times are when I feel myself getting teary over the wrong things. This hearkens back to the point about needing to experience and see an event.

It’s an awful feeling when, even though you can’t grieve for the loss of a person who was like a sister to you, you find yourself feeling sad because R2-D2 is going on a mission away from 3PO in the Clone Wars TV series. Worse still is when you can’t justify it by saying that you’re in a teary mood because you know in your heart that the moment would have made you twinge with sadness anyway. It’s simply the way I experience things.

Concluding
The main point I wanted to make here is that next time an NT starts complaining about the Aspie lack of empathy being the cause of their relationship break up, spare a thought for the Aspie in the relationship who can’t lie about feelings they know are there but don’t appear until conditions are right.

Their inner conflict causes them just as much pain as the outer pain that NTs display, but since they lack the facilities to convey the message, they can only watch in stunned silence as they are treated like unemotional robots and their relationship collapses around them.

Sometimes, too, it’s the Aspie experiencing all the emotion and the NTs who are lacking in empathy.

About the Author: Gavin Bollard is an adult with Asperger’s and the father of two Aspie sons. This piece originally appeared on his blog, Life with Asperger’s, on May 19, 2009 and is reprinted here by permission.

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The Yogurt Incident

by Lori

T's Dream

Sleeplessness

Recently, two consecutive nights of sleep vanished into the maw of an autistic child’s dreams.

The first evening, nightmares obliged me to haul my massive pillow collection to my son’s room for an all-nighter. I tried to rest as he whimpered and wiggled.  His dozing body sought me out, burrowing into my back and belly.  I would have slept on the floor, but I sensed he needed my physical presence to remain asleep.

Our second sleepless night opened with Tyoma’s hysterical complaint of not needing sleep, ever.  Our usual tricks did not work.  His stubborn frenzy kept him up hours past his regular bedtime.

During the second night, recurring nightmares left him wailing for company. At 5:30 a.m., he launched an irritable, fussy day with demands of an immediate bedroom vacuuming. Hours of perseveration, arguing and intractable obsessiveness followed.

For a child who sleeps and wakes regularly, it took a jarring event to shake his sleep schedule so intensely. What caused his nighttime terror?

The yogurt incident.

The Incident

Thursday afternoon during snack time, Tyoma amused his peers by twisting his yogurt tube. It burst, spattering the kids around him.

One of the spattered children was Hardy. Hardy has multiple food allergies. Hardy’s milk allergy is so acute that his contact with yogurt caused edema. His mother whisked him out of school for the day.

Tyoma related the experience after school.  His conscientious CM, Crystalyn, filled in the remaining details—Hardy was okay and Tyoma expressed concern for his friend in an expected manner.

T did not want to talk about the incident further, so I assumed all was well.

Until, of course, he woke up with his first nightmare:

Mickey Mouse (his plush) and he were sailing on his bed in the ocean. Suddenly, Mickey began to choke and turn blue, red and then purple. Mickey swelled up and fell in the water. Worst of all–he tearfully told me—Mickey’s face changed emotion. Mickey went from happy to sad.

The next morning, he refused breakfast.  He shook with clenched, white fists, begging to stay home.  He wailed as I buckled him into his bus seat.  Crystalyn and his para-educators worked to ease his anxiety over returning to Hardy’s afternoon kindergarten class.

Weeks later, the incident still resonates. Mickey Mouse has been consigned to the attic. The sight of yogurt tubes no longer upset Tyoma, but no amount of persuasion will get him to eat one. Yesterday, he jogged and jumped around the gross motor room, outlining plans to keep Hardy safe. “I don’t want to hurt a friend, ever,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Autism and Empathy

The issue in autism is not a lack of empathy, but rather a profound over-abundance of it. The terror of harming another person caused my son deep, psychic unrest.  Tyoma thinks and cares about Hardy. He will enforce class rules to keep Hardy safe. One day Tyoma will generalize this event, making his own rules, lists and schedules for a safer, more orderly world.

His nascent social consciousness must be recognized and nurtured. It is easy to mistake a flat or negative affect for indifference or egoism. An autistic person’s emotional sensitivity can cause retreat–a coping mechanism to protect an over-sensitive self.  I must guide my son to reap benefits from his emotional gifts instead of being crushed by them.

About the Author: Lori is a woman in her 40s. In 2009,  her son was diagnosed with autism. A year later, her father was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. And then she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome as well. This piece first appeared on her blog, A Quiet Week in the House, and is reprinted here by permission.

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Letting Go of Pain from the Past with Compassion

by Inner Aspie

The other day, I ran across this this article about dysfunctional families.  It took me aback a little bit.  I’ve held the words in my mind, processing it for days now.  This is how my mind works.  I mull things over, adding bits and pieces of information and understanding, until I build a better understanding of a new concept.  This process can take days, or it can take years.

As a child, I was always acutely aware of my mother’s sensitive feelings. I wanted to make her happy and proud of me.  When I had class parties, I’d always pick out the candies and treats she’d like best, before eating any myself.  I’d burst in the door with excitement, presenting the treats I’d gathered for her.  I’d do the same at gift shops at class field trips. I’d use most of the money I’d been given to buy her something before I would myself.  Sometimes, I’d not buy myself anything at all.  While the other kids were busy thinking about what they wanted to buy, or what would make them happy I was busy trying to make my mother happy.  This is, as one might have surmised by now, an endless task, as well as not my responsibility.  It’s unfortunately one I’ve carried with me as one of those painful lessons you learn as a child.  I never learned to look after myself first.  Of course, there are positives to this, in that I am a generous person and will share anything I have with anyone in need.  I can and do get taken advantage of as well.  I attracted people who were abusive to me, and I accepted their abuse as just the way it is in grade school, all along until adulthood.

My father is likely on the spectrum himself, and was emotionally unavailable, as well as physically unavailable due to working long hours.  When he was around, he expected order and quiet.  He never gave compliments and always let you know in a harshly critical manner when you were wrong.  I stayed away from him as much as possible, because we didn’t get along.  I got no support from him and my ability to out-argue him relentlessly got me labeled a troublemaker.

As you might imagine, my father was completely unable to handle my mother’s wildly swinging emotions and need for empathy.  He is simply unable to do so and she is unable to regulate herself.  I firmly believe she has Borderline Personality Disorder.  The two together was a recipe for disaster.  I became the person that things hinged on.  If things were good, I was good.  If things were bad, I was bad.  I was/am the scapegoat in the family.  My mother’s mental health declined year after year.  By the time I was in my adolescence, she was pretty neurotic.  With me about to leave the home, and my brother most of the way grown, she wasn’t as needed anymore.  She saw things that weren’t there and accused me of doing things I never did.  If I got a new friend, a boyfriend, or even an interest that took my time away from her, she’d come up with something that I had done or they’d done to keep me away from them — even going so far as to admitting me to mental hospitals, so she could get pity from family.  She believed that I summoned evil spirits to terrorize her and so many other things that were equally crazy.  Child Protective Services tried to remove me from the home at age 17.  My mother said I was responsible for that, too and refused to speak to me for quite awhile after that.

I was tragically scarred by these experiences.  As an adult now, I am putting things into perspective, allowing healing and new growth.  One of those processes is understanding what on earth made my mother behave the way she did/does.  As a mother myself, I can’t fathom treating my kids that way.  I have asked this question many times over, and the answer I believe is in this quote:

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.” Thich Nhat Hanh

I know my mother suffers.  She suffers greatly.  She can’t help it, but lets it pour over onto others, infecting them with her pain.  The last two years, we have not been on speaking terms at all.  Her pain of feeling abandoned by me was more than she could handle.  A conversation couldn’t go by where, out of the blue, I’d be told how all of my struggles with my ASD kids are my own fault for moving away from her.  She won’t visit me, because I made my own bed, so now I can lie in it, as far as she’s concerned.  Or if I’d be asking for advice about my daughter, she’d drop in that as long as she doesn’t grow up to be as ungrateful and mean spirited as me, then I’ll have escaped the real pain of motherhood that she has endured.  I finally could take it no more.  I told her to get help to manage her pain or leave me alone.  She chose leaving me alone.  That was painful.  It was awful for me, and I am still gathering up coping skills to help me deal with it.  I don’t think anyone ever really gets over something like that.  So, if anything, I have derived some comfort in knowing that it’s not me, or about me.  She just can’t contain her massive amount of pain and agony. This may be an important part for me to move forward, and letting myself feel worthy of love, life, and joy.

About the Author: Inner Aspie a stay-at-home mom with Asperger’s Syndrome. She has three kids: CJ, 13 (Dyslexic), Bubby, 9 (mild autism), and Beans, 7 (severe Autism). She loves being a mom and blogging about her adventures in parenting in an atypical household. This piece first appeared on her blog, Inner Aspie, and is reprinted here by permission.

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