An “autistic grinch” may be protecting a big heart

W.E. Powers

by W.E.Powers

My brothers insisted on opening the presents before we took off for our Christmas out of state. Naturally, it was not Christmas morning, so I protested. In my opinion as an autistic twelve-year-old, opening a present before it was time to do so was unconscionable. But there were two of them and only one of me, so I was outvoted. We waited for dad to get home before the blizzard of paper could begin. We would be allowed to take our one favorite present with us, but we would have to wait until we got back before we could open anything from Santa because he hadn’t yet made his yearly rounds. As if.

With suitcases packed and stuffed to the core,
three children and mom wait by the door.
Dad with his horn honks to come in;
we open the gate and wait with a grin.

The day has arrived, we will drive through the night,
and find a hotel that has left on a light.
The cookies are baked, and Mom is well dressed,
but I notice dad’s face looks too depressed.

Unaware brothers unwrapping galore
fight with each other over which one has more.
I watch from my spot under the tree
as dad talks to mom without any glee.

In tones much too somber for ‘O Tannenbaum,
I barely make out the words of my mom.
Gathering children, she hugs every one;
the bad news is broken, not to spoil our fun.

It would appear dad’s job is now gone.
One month of pay should help carry-on.
And why haven’t I opened my Christmas gifts?
“Take them back to the store!” I say with a miff.

“We won’t let it stop us from this seasons fun.
Now off to the car, you children run!”
And on our lips, as we drove out of sight,
“Merry Christmas to all…” Oh, wait a minute.

I don’t remember much else about that Christmas vacation. I know it was cold up north. And I remember the feeling of being sick every time my mom bought us a soda or a snack while we were on the road. I also remember that feeling of dread walking into the house after we got back. Santa had come as promised. I don’t remember the actual gifts, but I do remember fighting back my tears while unwrapping. I didn’t want the presents. I only wanted my mom to get her money back. I had to hide my tears because seeing them made my mom feel worse. Boy was I glad to see the tree came down that year. I never wanted to see another Christmas tree or Christmas present again for as long as I lived.

We made it through that next year thanks to the help of our church family who covered our tuition for school and brought us weekly boxes stuffed with food. My father found another job. And life continued.

Christmas came around again as it always does.

I was happy to discover my mom opted to make us each a special quilt for our present that next year. It was treasured a lot more than anything she ever bought us. Each square had been hand embroidered with our mother’s love. Mine is still in great condition as I keep it unused as my favorite present of all time. One brother also still has his and uses it, but his wife has had to patch it so many times I doubt any of the original stitching remains!

A common misconception is that people who have autism do not have empathy. This idea stumped me for the longest time. I have both autism and empathy, so I know this idea is a fallacy. When I think about my childhood response to my father’s job loss, I know what I felt was empathy. So why have I also been accused of being cold and non-empathetic? What is my problem?

Being autistic is not the same thing as being psychopathic. Autistic people have a conscience. We DO relate the pain of other people with our own pain. I even suspect some of us feel those emotions with a potency neurotypicals may never experience.

Because other senses are impacted by our neurological differences, it makes sense emotions may also suffer from overloaded circuits. I experience sound with a ferocious intensity that I have only ever seen portrayed correctly on S2 mid-season finale of my new favorite show “The Good Doctor.” Doctor Shaun Murphy’s meltdown triggered by the horrendous buzzing of a fluorescent light bulb is eerily reminiscent of my own final breaking point at my previous place of employment.

When our senses overwhelm us, we go into a state of hyper-defense and self-preservation. We have no choice in this response any more than a person has a choice about sneezing after inhaling pepper. Emotions can be powerful and overwhelming for anyone. In autism, emotional regulation is often a problem anyway. If we are afraid of becoming emotionally overwhelmed, it makes sense we would cover our emotional ears to keep ourselves from a meltdown.

Like most people, there have been many nights when I stayed awake worrying about things happening in the lives of family members and acquaintances. And, like most people, I have experienced my fair share of loss. It is not that I think my losses are in any way larger than those of other people. I can’t even say that I feel them any stronger than any other person because I do not know how other people experience emotions. But I have also cried myself to sleep after hours of replaying conversations with peers, only to later realize they were only teasing. After looking back, I realized my emotional regulation did not work as well as I needed it to work.

As I grew older, I discovered the best way to avoid agonizing nights was to be content with my own company. Like the Simon and Garfunkel song says, “And a rock feels no pain.” Because I already had a difficult time understanding the conversation and motives of those around me, I discovered ignoring them was a lot easier on all of us. Not only was I able to sleep better not worrying about their parents driving them around in a car that had stalled in the middle of an intersection one time, but I figured they were also sleeping better because they no longer had to worry about me or try to figure me out. I knew it must have been as hard for them to understand me as it was for me to understand them. The bottom line is I believed it was in the best interests of everyone concerned if I just stayed to myself. I did not understand that some people interpreted my behavior as snobbish or uncaring.

Fast-forward to every Christmas after the one I will never forget. It takes a lot of effort for me to smile and pretend to enjoy the season. The thing is, I enjoy the frivolity as much as the next person. Sure, glitter is something I find annoying, but so do many other folks. But I don’t like getting presents. I use the excuse that I am picky about what I like, and there is truth to the concept of it being difficult to buy presents for people with autism. I remember long before that fated holiday being disappointed with gifts of dolls and other girly toys. I wanted stamps, rocks, and anything to do with science because those were my areas of hyper-focus. But the emotion I felt after that day is different. It is one that comes back to visit every year like a Christmas ghost.

This dread is based on my hypersensitivity to the emotional stress the holiday may place on those around me who love me and are eager to buy me something they have finally figured out I may enjoy, autism and all. And I appreciate that action more than I will ever be able to express.

So if you have an autistic loved-one on your nice list this year, I hope this blog might make it a bit easier for you to understand the complexity of emotions we also experience…just in different ways.

On the outside, we may act like a Grinch; but there may be a huge heart under that green vest that is afraid of bursting with all the love and emotions we feel for you in return.

***

Wen of ZenBorn in Florida, I spent my childhood being bullied for reasons I did not understand. Autism spectrum disorders were unknown to my family or teachers. Taking everything literally, unable to read facial expressions, and emotional ruptures, resulted in being an outcast.

Today, art therapy provides me with a way to share my experiences and emotions with the outside world.

Digital art: W.E. Powers

 

3 Comments

  • The social problem with autism is the lack of theory of mind, or “mind blindness.” See, someone who’s mind blind doesn’t know they’re mind blind, so they cannot accurately assess themselves. People who are diagnosed as autistic and also think they feel empathy make the assertion because, well, they don’t know they can’t feel empathy. It’s a tragic irony that has no cure. The reason neurotypicals classify autistics as cold and rude or disconnected is because according to the 99% standards of society, they are. Why are they? Because they don’t know how to communicate or address fluid situations without prompting. Why is that? They’re not wired to feel what the rest of us define as empathy. If they could, they wouldn’t be autistic. They wouldn’t be perceived as cold or rude or mean or narcissistic. They wouldn’t have a communication disorder. The idea that autistics feel things more and therefore must have empathy is conflating empathy with emotional/autistic meltdowns. What an autistic will never be able to understand is the lack of ability to experience empathy is what sets them apart and ultimately earns the diagnosis. Without theory of mind, you cannot have empathy. Feeling bad for someone because they lost their job isn’t necessarily empathy. It’s compassion. Compassion and empathy are two very different things. I’m compassionate toward animals but anyone who says they empathize with animals is as blind as someone on the spectrum. We aren’t animals, therefore we cannot know how they feel. We can only project our feelings. That’s what autistics do and why there are communication errors. They cannot know how a neurotypcal feels because they’re not neurotypical, anymore than we can know how they feel. So another irony in the mix is the fact that the only people neurotypicals can’t empathize with are those who cannot feel empathy. To sum it up. No, those who are autistic don’t experience empathy. Not what we all call empathy, anyway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *