An empathetic connection

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, August 31, 2021, 9:54 PM | comments: 0

The strangest observation that I could make about humans is that intelligence is often disconnected from all of the other things we do. I was talking with my therapist today about the fact that I can't easily apply my professional skills to my personal life. Similarly, I'm pretty good at counseling others in certain situations, while often incapable of seeing my own situations for what they are. When it comes to Simon, as smart as he can be about things that interest him, he doesn't connect the dots between other things.

We've always struggled with getting Simon to follow directions. I'm guilty of the same thing, and it's easy for others to conclude that I think I'm simply smarter than the directives. But the real underlying thing is that we simply can't reconcile the desired outcomes as necessary. That's not a function of ego or arrogance, it just doesn't add up. What I know as an adult is that this situational context that we seek may be irrelevant, but for an 11-year-old kid with ASD, the lack of context simply makes understanding the directive less likely. Unfortunately, as a parent this is concerning because often the directive could be a safety issue, and there's no time for negotiation.

The other night, Simon was smothering one of the cats on the table behind the couch. You know how this goes... the cat eventually starts to squirm away. In this case, we asked him to stop also because there's a lamp on that table, that he and the cat were pushing against. If you guessed that the lamp got pushed off the table, broke in several places and left a dent in the floor, you'd be correct.

My initial response was anger, and I declared TV time over, and it was time to get ready for bed. He cried, ran up to his room and slammed the door. We've been through situations like this before, and I knew where his head was. The cause and effect of not following directions was not on his mind, but you can bet he was stuck on the broken lamp and losing TV time. The frustration as a parent of not getting to the underlying problem is exhausting, but for whatever reason, I was unusually calm about trying to get there.

When I went in to talk to him, it was immediately, "I'll buy a new lamp!" in between the tears. I calmly explained that I didn't care about the lamp, and came up with some arbitrary example of why not following directions has consequences. His response was pretty intense yelling about not talking to him and leaving his room. Honestly, I didn't have the energy. Work was difficult that day, and I was spent. I just told him I was done, good night and we'll talk another time.

That's when something unexpected happened. He tried to physically stop me from leaving, not with pushing, but hugging. He desperately said, "No, Daddy, I want you to talk to me." I had seen this movie over and over again, and this is not how it ended. I asked him to look at me and listen, and I explained to him, "I'm very worried about your safety, that one of these days you won't follow directions and get seriously hurt." He just looked at me, said, "OK," and leaned in for more hugging.

Here's why this was a big deal. What I observed was that, maybe for the first time, despite his own difficulty in managing his emotions, he seemed to see and understand where my emotions were. Usually at this point, he's just looking for one of us to help him calm down, but his body language and eye contact seemed to imply that, at least for a moment, he made it about me.

To Simon's credit, I've seen him act this way a bit more in the last year when he wasn't under stress. Between Diana's back pain problems and my mental fatigue around a number of challenging things, he has checked in at times. What gives me hope is that we're starting to see the thing that I recall one of his doctors talking about early on, that kids often build the coping skills to compensate for different wiring in their middle school and high school years.

Is this a solved problem? Nah, we will go through this again. But it feels like a victory, like forward momentum. I'm very thankful for that moment.


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