Asperger’s, Emotions and Parenthood

There is a persistent myth that people with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t feel emotions. It’s a myth because, if anything, I think many of us feel emotions more strongly than neurotypicals – it just doesn’t look like it.

I liken emotions in autism to a case of arrested development. Our emotional development suddenly stops while our bodies and cognitive abilities continue to grow. Unfortunately, it usually gets stuck on the ‘teenage’ setting, meaning we don’t understand what we feel, but we feel it all so intensely – the manic highs and the desperate lows – that we become overwhelmed and cease to function. Imagine being stuck as a hormonal fourteen-year-old your whole life – doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

Since our emotions can confuse, unsettle, and even scare us, we embrace routines, predictability, systematic thinking and mental reasoning. We live in our minds and try to keep our nasty, unpleasant feelings pushed down deep where they can’t harm us. Many resort to antidepressants to keep our feelings at bay. And when our emotions do get the better of us, and we can’t cope, we seek out solitude and experience them alone. The emotionally unresponsive Aspie, approaching situations from the head and not the heart, is therefore in many ways a defence mechanism against our dangerous unbridled passions.

At least, that’s how I see it.

Yet even knowing this, I did wonder why I didn’t feel more when Izzie was born. The father across from us in the Transitional Care Unit was always crying when he was hugging his newborn. ‘I love him so much, I just love him so much,’ he kept saying, until even his missus told him he was being pathetic. I just couldn’t relate to those feelings.

I was told, before Izzie was born, that the first time you hold your baby in your arms it’s special, the love is instantaneous, you’re overwhelmed with emotion, and yada, yada, yada. I’ve mentioned before that when I first met my baby I was pretty dazed and distracted by the whole ordeal of ambulances, operating theatres and incubators and it took me a good four hours to really start feeling the love. But I never got that emotional rush, that powerful knock-you-on-your-ass thrill of being a parent.

Until now.

This is going to sound really saccharine and namby-pamby, but the past few days I’ve been almost overwhelmed by this incredible feeling of love. I feel like I want to cry all the time. When the baby sleeps I feel this surge of emotion well up in my chest, and I watch her for hours because she’s perfect in every way. When I went to work in the charity shop yesterday, I missed her horribly – I was only gone three hours. And when customers asked about her, I showed them a picture and could have cried with pride. I can’t believe she’s only been here nineteen weeks. It feels like she was always with us, just waiting to be born to make us all complete.

See? It’s so horribly sweet and sickening I want to disown myself. Part of me wonders if it’s because I’ve reduced my caffeine intake and started a diet to knock off the twenty pounds I’ve put on in the last nineteen weeks, mostly through chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate; another part wonders if it’s because I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for almost five months; whereas in truth, it’s probably because I’m more relaxed about being a dad these days. The fumbling, panicked hell of the first couple of months, and the laboured, mind-sapping slog of the next two, have given way to a quiet confidence and acceptance of the new routine. And that allows me to see her and enjoy her for what she really is: an angel in our midst.

Actually, that’s going a little too far. She’s suddenly discovered she can squeak like R2-D2, so every time she’s displeased with something, which is often, she treats us to a sound even dolphins wouldn’t enjoy. It’s a high-pitched, screeching whine, somewhere between a dial-up modem and that awful sound you used to get when you picked up the phone only to hear a fax machine on the other end (for those of you too young to remember dial-up modems and fax machines, ask your parents what they were, and know that I hate you).

But my emotional responses to the good things far outweigh my feelings towards the bad. In fact, right now the emotional impact of the good things is utterly disproportionate to their size. Izzie rolled from her back to her stomach for the first time yesterday and me and Lizzie were leaping around the room like idiots, and even though today she’s doing it like a pro, we still get excited every time. This morning when she was laughing unstoppably as I blew raspberries on her belly, I could have been in heaven. And a few minutes ago when I went to check on her in her cot and she opened her eyes, smiled at me, and went immediately back to sleep, I could have stayed in that moment forever.

I am choked with emotion at the moment. I am overwhelmed. But not that anyone would know it.

People with Asperger’s do feel emotions just as strongly or more so than ‘regular’ people. We just don’t make such a big song and dance about it, is all…

See what I mean? Perfect.
See what I mean? Perfect.
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In Praise of Mothers, Part 2

In terms of parenting, the biggest difference between the sexes is not in our abilities but in the expectations put upon us. And these expectations are the reason mothers have it harder than fathers – because there are no expectations put on us at all.

To illustrate the point, a story little. When we had a meal out on our recent holiday on the Isle of Wight, I sat on the bench seat while Lizzie had the chair. I therefore put Izzie, in her car seat, on the bench seat beside me and spent the next two hours soothing her, playing with her, heating her bottle in a jug of water, feeding her, changing her, and generally eating with one hand. We were with friends, the conversation flowed, and the two hours passed in amiable, unthinking companionship.

While we were finishing our drinks, the table next to us got up to leave. It comprised three elderly couples. Before they left, they came up to our table and said they’d been watching me the whole meal, and remarking on what a good dad I was, and how impressed they were with me, and as I recall, the word ‘amazing’ was used. One woman even turned to the two girls at my table and said, ‘Whoever is the mother of this little girl is a very lucky lady to have such a man.’

Now, it’s very gratifying to have strangers (six, no less) commend your parenting abilities, and gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. However, this was at the time that Lizzie’s confidence in her mothering ability was at an all time low, and even as they said it, I looked at her, her face expressionless, and thought, ‘Ouch, that’s a kick in the teeth for her.’ The whole situation wasn’t very helpful and led to resentment and upset. They might have meant well, but it had the opposite effect.

And it only happened because I’m a man.

If I was female, the old people would have walked on by. Nobody goes up to a woman with a baby in a restaurant and tells her what a great mother she is and how lucky the father of her baby is for having her. Because it’s expected of a woman to look after her baby and do it well. It isn’t expected of us men.

Everywhere I go with the baby, people (mainly of the older generations, to be fair) tell me I’m a great father, congratulate me on giving mum ‘time off’, and praise me for being a ‘hands-on dad’. By these comments, and others about it being a breath of fresh air, they must have great experience of hands-off dads. But just who are these dads who don’t change nappies, help feed the baby or carry her about in public? They surely can’t be as rare as the comments would have us believe.

Regardless, the expectations placed on men are remarkably low. We’re expected to be rubbish at pretty much every hands-on baby caring task, with the possible exceptions of bathing and playtime. And then, when the hard stuff starts, you hand her back to mum.

And therein lies the problem for women. They’re expected to be perfect mothers right from the get-go, as if it’s natural and automatic, programmed into their DNA. They’re expected to do nappy changes, night feeds and look after the baby in public, and to do this without complaint and without mistake or they’re somehow defective as women. They’re expected to be horrendously tired all the time, yet selfless, knackered but energetic, caring and patient, self-sacrificing – essentially Twenty-First Century martyrs.

And they get zero thanks or appreciation for it because it’s what they’re ‘meant’ to do, whereas if I walk down the street with my daughter, I get to bask in the adoration of strangers. And that’s what makes being a mum so much harder than being a dad.

So if you’re a dad, be sure to give your lady thanks for all the crap she does. And next time you see a woman pushing a baby in a pram with a toddler in tow, remember there’s nothing ‘natural’ about it, and it’s a lot if jolly hard work!