For a long time, lack of empathy has been a wrongly-associated attribute of autism. The stigma surrounding the condition has been that autistic people are detached, disconnected and unaware of the emotional state of anyone around them. As if they can’t understand emotions, because they aren’t credited with having any.
This particular stigma could not be more incorrect, nor could it be more damaging for the autistic community.
Case in point; our son David.
David is on the autism spectrum, and when he was evaluated the neuropsychologist told us that he would place “moderate to severe” – if she were willing to assign levels to his diagnosis (she wasn’t). In most older diagnosis situations, we’d have been told that he wouldn’t understand us being sad, or happy for that matter, nor would he care. In even older diagnoses, it would have been recommended that we devalue his humanity and institutionalize him.
Thank god we’ve come as far as we have.
If we didn’t understand as much as we did about our son, or autism in general, we may have not picked up on the fact that David, this “severe” case, is actually hyper empathetic. He feels everything and everyone around him, very VERY intensely.
Which is good and bad.
Good, because it means they’re wrong. Bad, because currently I am an absolute wreck.
Tuesday night, my mom messaged us to let us know that she was going in to the ER; she has a heart history and was having severe chest pains. From the ER, she was transported to a larger hospital an hour away, where further analysis could be done.
A few tests, some labs, and three days later, I was told my mom needed open heart surgery, and she needed it pronto. She ended up needing a triple bypass.
Cue the insane, control-freak, let-me-handle-this, anxiety-fueled side of Andrew; as if there’s a thing I can do from 300 miles away.
This morning my mom went under the knife. By the time I was up, she’d already been put on the bypass machine. There was no longer anything I could do or say; only wait and pray – and pace, and scroll, and find things to keep my anxious hands busy.
I didn’t even notice that David was feeling everything that was radiating off of me.
I was in the kitchen, scrubbing and washing dishes from last night’s anxiously-undertoned festivities, dwelling on the fact that by that point in the day I ought to know more – when David came into the kitchen with his hands over his eyes (an anxiety response), and crashed into me burying his face in my stomach (also an anxiety response). I hugged him, and asked him “are you okay buddy?”
He took my hand and said, “Daddy David couch, Chicken Little?”
He was feeling anxious because he knew I was struggling, and he reached out to me wanting to help.
He wanted to help.
David helps by pulling you into his movies; movies are what he uses as a script to subvert uncomfortable feelings.
Getting hit in the chest by the dump truck of my son’s anxiety put me right on my behind, right next to him on the couch, watching Chicken Little and repeating the movie lines back and forth with him.
It righted things for both of us.
I’ve since found that my mom’s surgery went swimmingly – she pulled through it like a rock star, and is in her room asleep and being monitored closely. She has an amazing care staff that has been extraordinarily gracious with a very anxious me. I cannot say enough good things about her nursing staff.
I also can’t say enough good about my son, who saw a need in his dad and took action to help… even though there are people who’d write him off as incapable of doing so.
Love you, mom.
And thank you, Bub.