In the spring after sitting through several hours of a dance recital, Caden remarked that he could cry because the dancing was so beautiful.
At the start of a football game, Caden asked when the singing of the Star Spangled Banner would be over. When asked why, he replied that the song made him cry.
While his sister was getting drops in her ear for a painful case of shingles, Caden ran from the room and asked us to let him know when we were done.
Crying while watching a commercial for an agency who works with abandoned and abused animals, Caden wanted to know if we could go get them and bring them home so they weren’t sad anymore.
If you would have asked me several years ago when we were still new to autism, I would have remarked that Caden lacked empathy as evidenced by the fact he didn’t really seem to notice if you were laughing or crying, even if you were sitting next to him. I would have probably also said that he didn’t really seem to notice what was going on around him nor did he particularly care. I would have also stated that he was obsessed with his fixations, whether it is stacking blocks or lining up cars.
And I would have been totally and completely wrong about it all. Looking back now, I couldn’t have misunderstood, misrepresented, or completely missed more about my son. To be honest, that isn’t easy nor is it pleasant to admit. See, at the time, I thought that we needed to work more on emotional recognition because he didn’t get it. I thought we needed to work on helping him become more aware of the world around him because he wasn’t noticing it on his own. I thought things like eye contact and new interests were the most important goals that existed. And like I said, I was wrong.
What we have come to realize is that Caden doesn’t lack empathy. Instead, he is overly empathetic to the point that others’ emotions are overwhelming for him. Some are even painful for him to the point that he often cries at bedtime in his attempt to deal with all that he has encountered throughout the day, either as a participant, a bystander, or maybe just a television viewer or song listener. He doesn’t yet have the social skills or the vocabulary to navigate all that he is feeling and experiencing. His fight or flight response is to either flee by physically leaving the interaction, or when that isn’t possible he finds comfort in the familiar routine of lining, stacking, or spinning that gives his mind an escape that his body can’t quite make. When he isn’t able to escape physically or mentally the emotions crash over him in an experience that leaves him with tears. His sobs aren’t that of an un-empathetic child, but one who has taken in more than he can process in that moment. The same memory that allows him to script entire episodes of his favorite television shows is the same memory that also forces him to relive all of those encounters over and over again.
Studies have discussed the possibility that some individuals with autism avoid eye contact because the eyes are too intense, too emotional, too revealing. Maybe that explanation works for other autistic behaviors.
Reading nonverbal communication, understanding inferences, figuring out non-literal language, and learning how to engage in social chit-chat are all still important goals for Caden. But at the moment, learning how to cope with the intense onslaught of emotions that occur in any day takes precedence. This emotional overload is the source of intense anxiety, and realistically is probably the explanation that we sought for years with regard to Caden’s sleep difficulties. As his vocabulary and ability to self-soothe continue to increase, I think his coping abilities will too.
The goal now is to help him learn to cope and manage all that he is experiencing. I think we need to be careful in how we work toward that goal. I don’t want to do anything that damages or lessens his empathy because that is such a core element to whom he really is. It is such a core element to whom he will become. I’ve been really wrong in the past and I don’t want to make those mistakes again so the cues and direction on how to proceed have to come from Caden.
For now though I am trying to see the world through his eyes, his ears, and his heart. When I actually slow my brain to the world around me, it is an amazingly intense place. Maybe the key to making a difference in human or animal suffering is to really notice that it is happening around you. Maybe the key to living a truly happy life as well is to be able to really notice the beauty in a song, in a bird, or in a moment. It is quite possible that my son at the tender age of 7 already knows more about living than I do.
Caden pointed out to me the other day that every television show starts with a theme song so you can dance “’cause it is just fun.” So we have been dancing to every commercial and theme song we can this week and what do you know, he couldn’t be more right.