Debra Bartholomew (above) writes about her experiences with Rowan, her autistic child. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.
There has always been that misconception that autistic individuals lack empathy or the ability to show emotion. Interestingly enough, I recall watching a scary movie many years ago, with my older son resting on my lap as a babe. Although I had his back towards the television, his eyes read every expression on my face. He burst into tears and I had to stop watching the movie. It was the last time that I would watch a scary movie in his presence or at home for a very long time.
Over the years, though, I wondered whether his diagnosis would affect this extraordinary ability. I could see where it was easy to conclude that persons on the spectrum would find it difficult, they struggle to or are unable to read facial expressions and social situations, after all. I mean, how can a child who is unable to understand that all children huddled together in one space meant assembly time not play, or who is unable to read the social cues at school of raising a hand to ask a question and interrupts instead, appreciate what someone else is feeling?
And worse, would that affect him having meaningful relationships? Would his ‘friend(s) understand that this was part of him? And would they be understanding? That question was one of many that would often plague my thoughts in my early days of this journey, one that only my son would eventually answer.
As time went on, the more research I did, the more confused I became. Here was this child who did not conform to the mould (if there ever was one). At age six when his brother was hospitalized for a strange and scary illness, he ended up spending nights at the hospital with me, rather than go home to a comfy bed, even attending school from there.
Still this was at opposites with instances when, because of the lack a filter, he would utter a harsh, stinging truth. Yet, he would later become the teen who would often ask after your well-being if he somehow sensed something ‘off’ for a minute. Still it made me wonder.
Every Easter Sunday, my family would gather for Easter Sunday breakfast at my parents’ home. There was all our favorite fare, ham, eggs, muffins, pancakes, fried plantains, and salad. We’d gather and eat and chat and enjoy each other’s company. Seven chairs around the table. Seven filled chairs, that is, until this year.
They say that one of the hardest things about losing someone close to you is the absence you feel at special times of the year. My sister’s absence at Easter felt like a gaping vacuum. We dared not speak of it lest we succumbed to its forces and so we kept up a brave face, especially for the boys. In honor of her memory, we kept her chair at the table, its emptiness, a solemn reminder of our memories of Easters past.
Breakfast was particularly difficult, although we tried to muster up our usual light-hearted chatter. Every single morsel of food seemed to go down with increasing difficulty as our throats seemed to shrink from our grief.
As our meal progressed though, there was one person who barely spoke. As I looked across the table at my older son, I watched him slowly shrivel as his gaze barely left the empty chair, his eyes slowly filling with tears. I excused him from the table and comforted him as best I could. It was obvious how difficult this was for him.
Not only did he experience the emptiness but he also shared in our pain as a family. But how? How could an autistic feel empathy? How could an autistic feel sorrow at the sight of an empty chair when for him, the chair of empathy was empty?
All day I couldn’t shake our breakfast experience. I watched my son go through the motions of the day and it made me ponder. It drove me to read and research. I thought back to the times I mentally struggled, the times my own anxiety would overwhelm me, moments where I would feel a hand on my shoulder and glimpse the worry in his eye.
How could he know then? And how could he know that a mere hand on my shoulder could mean so much in my time of need? Where did he learn that and more importantly, how could it move from a robotic, learned response to a heartfelt, empathetic gesture? Was that even possible?
Very, very possible. In fact it is our reality. Thankfully many of the labels we’ve used to describe autistics are being thrown by the wayside, including this one. What I did not know was my teaching my son how to read facial expressions using Thomas the Tank Engine, every visit with his speech therapist who taught him how to listen in conversation, and every social cue we would teach him to read, was actually just a stepping stone on the path to a greater lesson.
Empathy in fact was the more challenging lesson which began several years ago with learning what a sad face looked like. Just like learning how to add and multiply were stepping stones in Math to eventually learning Algebra and Calculus, these somewhat trivial lessons were in fact, not just early and unavoidable conduits but also may have helped to serve as a catalyst for developing empathy.
Ultimately though, and more importantly, it is the beauty of the soul that is the real teacher. That hand on my shoulder was not just a culmination of years of sessions of speech therapy, but also of moments of tenderness, occasions of benevolence, and instances of raw emotion.
I am often left humbled on this journey with this human being that I’m blessed to call my child. It is moments like this discovery that leave me in awe. It is times like these, especially, that I realize that he isn’t a puzzle piece to be figured out. Rather, he and all others like him, are the piece of the puzzle to helping us to figure out humanity.
As for my son, his table, isn’t surrounded by empty chairs as once thought. For him, that chair of empathy is not empty.