How my toddler made me cry

My two-year-old daughter made me cry the other night.

It came as a bit of a surprise, because I’m not really that emotional a person. Over the years I’ve built up a thick skin – it’s the only way to survive being a square peg in a world of round holes. My moods tend to vary between melancholy, discontentment and ennui, so I rarely reach the extremes of feeling that lead to tears, good or bad. Funerals? Nothing. Weddings? Nothing. The birth of my kids? Meh.

But then, there is a chink in my armour. Toy Story 3 made me weep in the cinema, My Girl just kills me, and who doesn’t cry at Marley & Me (besides cat lovers)? I can’t walk past a child’s gravestone without welling up, and last year I even cried at a book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in a scene where a chimpanzee begs to be allowed to go home. All of which goes to show, give me the bittersweet juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow, and you can pierce right to the heart of me.

I first noticed this weakness about twenty years ago, at Land’s End in Cornwall. A little boy was running with his brand new toy sword from the gift shop when he tripped and fell and – SNAP! – the blade broke at the hilt. The look on that boy’s face – the dawning realisation of what had happened, the switch from innocent joy to infinite sorrow as life’s hard truths hit home, and then the tears of impotent despair at the discovery that some things once broken cannot be fixed – it broke my heart.

I mean, sure, it was just a plastic sword costing a couple of quid and his parents could have bought him another one in a heartbeat – hardly a life-or-death experience. But that boy’s face haunted me for weeks after, because in the innocent, uncontrolled emotional state of a child, unable to weigh up comparative value or process cause, effect and consequence, and living solely in the moment, it is life-or-death. Children and animals, their simplicity of thought and emotion, their purity – when they suffer, when they’re sad, when they’re in pain and when they die, it cuts through every barrier I put up to protect myself.

Unfortunately, my toddler is right at that point in her social and emotional development where innocence and sorrow come into contact several times a day.

The evening she made me cry, I picked her up from nursery as usual. It’s always nigh identical to that scene in The Railway Children – she sees me, stops stock still in awe, and then she shouts, ‘Daddy, it’s my daddy!’ and runs towards me, her face filled with elation, leaving me just enough time to drop to one knee before she slams into me and throws her arms around me. So excited to show me what she’s been doing, so proud to show me off to the ladies at nursery – ‘My daddy,’ she says, ‘This my daddy.’

She’s the last to be picked up, after dark, so for half an hour she gets to hang with the grown-ups. I know it makes her feel special. She gets such a look of well-being on her little face as she puts on her school bag like a big girl, waves to the ladies all cocky because she’s heading home to mummy and her little sister. This night was no different but for one thing.

She tripped as she stepped over the threshold, stumbled down the wheelchair ramp and face-planted into the mud.

I stood her up, her hands, coat and face black with dirt. The women from the nursery appeared in the doorway and in the light spilling out past them I saw my little girl’s face – the shock giving way to embarrassment and humiliation as she fought back the tears, struggling to keep control. I told her it’s okay and she’s very brave, but it was all too much and suddenly she was wailing and burying her face in my side so nobody could see her. Ultimate joy to ultimate misery in under ten seconds, her special, sacred moment destroyed. Broke my heart.

But that wasn’t what made me cry.

On the way home, to distract her from her misery, I asked her who had been there today. Turns out it was Tilly, Hugo, Sebastian, Rufus (yes, I know – we’re only a Tarquin away from winning Pretentious-name Bingo), and a new one for me – Jasper.

‘Who’s Jasper?’ I asked.

‘My best friend,’ she replied. Too cute!

Then I asked her what she’d been up to. ‘Me sing Twinkle, Twinkle with my friends.’ Oh my gosh, the sweetest thing ever. But it still didn’t make me cry. No, that came after dinner when I was bathing her.

She was sticking the foam letters to the side of the tub – ‘This mummy,’ she’d say, and ‘This Granny,’ and ‘This Poppa.’ Then she put three together, pointed at the middle one, and said, ‘This daddy.’

‘Who’s this, then?’ I asked, pointing at the figure beside me.

‘This daddy’s friend,’ she replied, and pointed to the other; ‘and this daddy’s friend.’ And then she put another one beside them and said, ‘And this daddy’s best friend.’

And that’s when I cried.

As a master at acting ‘normal’, I hid it well. This is particularly important because my toddler has become very sensitive to other people’s feelings. She’s always asking if mummy’s sad, or if daddy’s sad, and the other night she woke up sobbing because she’d had a dream in which mummy was very sad. So I wiped my eyes, endured that prickly feeling at the top of my nose, and got on with it.

But why did I cry? The juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow.

As somebody with autism, friendship is something I always desperately wanted but was never able to have. I struggle to understand or connect with other people. When someone wants to be my friend, I become paranoid and push them away. When I want someone to be my friend, I approach it so cautiously I miss the opportunity. I don’t know how to make, keep and manage friendships, and I only have the mental energy or focus to sustain one friend or partner at a time. As I’m married, this means I don’t have the social resources to have any friends – no close ones anyway. It’s the way I’m built. It’s one of those things.

But that doesn’t make it any less painful, and it doesn’t mean I’m not desperately lonely.

My daughter has already realised the importance of friendship. Watching her making friends is a wonderful relief, because she is not like me. A bittersweet relief, as one day she’ll learn that daddy doesn’t have any friends, and she won’t understand why, and she’ll be sad, because even though I won’t show it, she’ll know that I’m sad too. Because friendship is important regardless of who you are.

Where do innocence and sorrow factor into this? Her innocence; my sorrow.

That’s how my toddler made me cry.

The key to good parenting

I was recently asked what makes a good parent. You can fill a library – a thousand libraries – with the possible answers, so I could have gone on about patience, tolerance, a sense of humour, imposing boundaries, being consistent, enjoying the moment, and all those other nuggets of wisdom, if I wasn’t sure that most people already know these things.

Instead, to save you the time and the eye-strain, I can sum up what makes a good parent in just two words: emotional resilience. Everything else stems from that.

I think that society is very confused about what a good parent looks like. The parent with the perfectly behaved, adorable little angel of a child is lauded as ‘good’, while that with the bratty, obnoxious little oik they have to drag out of the supermarket because they’re screaming is judged as ‘bad’. I know, because I have done this myself, inferring the relative merits of the parent from a brief glimpse at the behaviour of their child.

But this is, in fact, a very unreliable method of gauging an individual’s parenting ability, because all kids are different – some are easy, most are a mixture of tranquil and testing, and some are right little bastards who, in an earlier generation, would have been destined for birch and borstal. It’s not so much the behaviour of the child but the behaviour of the parent that reveals their abilities or otherwise.

You see, being a good parent isn’t about succeeding when things are going well, the toddler’s perfectly happy and everything is hunky-dory – those are the times to sit back, relax and bask in the glow of strangers who deem you the very model of a perfect parent.

No, the real test of your parenting prowess is what you do, and how well you cope, when things are going horribly, horribly wrong, the little one is screaming fit to burst her lungs, and you want nothing more than to run away, find a dark place where you can curl into a ball, and hide away as you ride out the storm. That’s when you discover whether you’re a good parent or not, and that’s when you find whether you have the strength to rise up in the face of adversity – or not, as the case may be.

Being a parent, you’re tested every day. What your toddler loves to eat on Monday she decides is vomit on Tuesday, no matter how long it took you to make. At home on Wednesday she’s as good as gold while on Thursday at the restaurant she behaves so badly you have to leave early in defeat. And on Friday she’s using the potty like a pro, but on Saturday pisses on the sofa and then craps on your shoe, and she’s so upset, you break your heart trying to console her.

The hours of crying, the thrown toys, the irritating whining, the tiredness, the dressing and redressing, the bathing and washing, the repetitive game playing, the incessant highs and lows and successes and failures, the constant battle of wills and the endless sacrificing of your own hunger, thirst, wants, needs, dreams – it is so difficult not to be affected by all that, not to get run down.

That’s what I mean by emotional resilience. If you want to be a good parent, want to keep going in the same calm, controlled, reliable fashion you’ve done from the start, you have to find a way of protecting your emotions, shutting off a part of yourself, so as not to become overwhelmed. If you let things get to you, if they weigh heavy on your heart, you’re never going to make it.

As I said before, emotional resilience is pretty much all you need to be a good parent, because it is the foundation of everything. Nobody sets out to be a bad parent – nobody decides they want to lose their temper at their kids, shout at them, hit them, make them cry; nobody thinks one day they’ll start to ignore their child, sit them in front of the TV, dump them with family and child minders and start hiding at work; nobody plans to simply give up and overlook their child’s bad behaviour because they can’t deal with it, or give them the chocolate bar because it’s easier than arguing, or leave them in nappies till they’re five because it’s just too hard – but I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of these behaviours.

Hell, I went to a fair yesterday, and I saw most of them – parents losing control and swearing at their kids, parents looking the other way as their kids misbehaved, parents buying things for the kids to stop them whining – anything for an easy life. I don’t believe these parents started out this way. I don’t believe they ever thought they’d be like this. But somewhere along the way, they’ve become so run down by being parents that they’re just trying to survive – and good parenting has gone out the window.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if your child is well behaved or not. In the grand scheme of things, all your mistakes as a parent, all your failures, aren’t anywhere near as important as you think they are. What’s important is that you never stop trying to be a good parent; that you persevere, no matter how difficult; and that despite wanting to run away, or give in, or give up, you don’t, don’t, don’t. That’s the only way you can be a good parent. And ultimately, your child will be all the better for it.

 

Autism and Empathy

I consider myself a reasonably intelligent fellow. I have a Diploma of Higher Education, two Bachelor’s Degrees and a Master’s, and got a distinction for each. And they cover some pretty dry subjects, too: the history of science and technology, history of medicine, the psychology of violence, English language, linguistic and representational philosophy, psychoanalysis, criminology, imperialism, archaeology, urban development, and the history of warfare, with a smattering of classics, film history and creative writing thrown in for good measure. I find it pretty easy to switch between arts, humanities and social sciences and by the measure of society, it is not a stretch to describe me as academically gifted.

The thing with academic intelligence, however, is that it doesn’t necessarily translate well into the ‘real world’ of feelings, relationships and social interaction, particularly when you have autism. The other day, for example, I was trying to explain to someone how, if a person talks in a loud voice and uses expressive hand gestures, I interpret this to mean that they’re angry (this was a subtle way of asking her to lower her voice and keep her hands inside the vehicle at all times, but it fell on deaf ears).

‘But you’re intelligent enough to know they’re not really angry,’ she said.

Well, yes, I know on an intellectual level that they’re not angry, just loud, but this actually changes nothing because my instinctive understanding is that they are, indeed, angry, and my physiological reaction is the same as if they were: my fight or flight mechanism kicks in, I get flooded with adrenalin, my hackles rise, and everything in my body acts as though I’m about to be attacked. That’s not something I can intellectualise away.

It is this difficulty interpreting or understanding another’s emotional state which makes people tell me that, as a person with autism, I am unable to empathise. And despite my broad education and academic intelligence, I have to admit that I’m really struggling to work out what this concept called ’empathy’ actually is.

The reason I’m wondering is because I have, of late, been incredibly emotionally fragile, which I have detailed in another post. I spent the most awful few weeks of my life crying over a little girl I’d never met called Jessica Whelan, who was dying of neuroblastoma. Something about the story touched me very deeply, and I internalised so much pain and sorrow that it was as if my own child were dying. I cried all day, every day. I could barely function, every day waiting for the news that she and her family had been released from their suffering.

When she finally passed, I had one last almighty cry and started to feel better. Instantly, the past few weeks started to feel weird, as if I had been in a fugue state. They have a funny colour in my mind (I associate things with colours in my head) – those weeks were yellow ochre, everything yellow ochre, when my world is normally pale blue. It was as though someone or something else had taken over me. I was an emotional wreck for weeks, just wasn’t myself at all. It was as if there was a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, and the inbetween was something else.

Describing this to people, they’ve said things like, ‘That’s because you’ve never felt empathy before’, or ‘you’ve never been able to empathise’, or ‘I thought people with autism couldn’t empathise’, or ‘as someone with autism, you’ve never had to learn how to deal with emotions when you empathise with people’. In fact, every single person I’ve spoken to has used the word ’empathy’, or a derivative of it, and this is what has me flummoxed: just what the hell is empathy?

As I have always understood it, sympathy is when you feel for someone, without internalising their pain, while empathy is when you feel with someone, taking on their viewpoint and experiencing their emotions for yourself. As an illustration of the distinction, one of our chickens died the other night. I thought it was a shame, but that was about it. When I told my wife, however, she cried for half an hour. I sympathised with her, in that I recognised she was in distress and tried to help by making her a cup of tea (that very British panacea), but I didn’t empathise with her because I didn’t feel the same emotions (i.e. I did not get upset and cry with her). Seems pretty straightforward.

But really, it’s not. When that little girl was dying, why did I feel such pain, and for whom, and in what way? I couldn’t bear that she was suffering and dying, so does that mean I was feeling for her (sympathising) or feeling with her (empathising)? Or was I doing both simultaneously? Or, in fact, neither? Because much of my pain was the result of imagining it was my child suffering and dying, does this mean I was actually empathising with her parents, by adopting their viewpoint and experiencing their pain? (Which seems a little arrogant, because how could I possibly experience the pain of losing a child without having done so?) Or was I simply imagining my own pain at the possibility of losing my own child, which means I wasn’t actually empathising at all but was indulging in a selfish, masochistic grief-fantasy?

This is what is confusing me. Being autistic, I tend to approach my emotions from an intellectual viewpoint in an attempt to understand them and regulate them, and maybe I’m thinking too much into it, but I can’t understand how a person could ever be said to empathise with another. How can a person experience the feelings of another, or understand their viewpoint? We are all different, and we think and feel differently, and it would be presumptuous in the extreme for someone to think they know, understand and echo how I am thinking and feeling. Surely when we ’empathise’, what we really mean is that we are using our imaginations to think how we would feel in a given situation, so instead of feeling someone else’s pain, we’re feeling our own (imagined) pain?

If this is the case, then it is wrong to say that people with autism cannot empathise, because we can certainly imagine how we would feel in a given situation and project that feeling onto the situations of others. Indeed, if we could not do that at all, we would fit the criteria for psychopathy, and people with autism are clearly not all psychopaths. I think the belief that people with autism cannot empathise stems from our inability to accurately interpret the emotional cues of others in interpersonal communication – if we cannot work out another’s emotional state, such as thinking they’re angry because they’re loud, how can we match emotions (empathise) with them? It is therefore a problem with social communication, and not an emotional disability.

On the other hand, if we bring in the idea of personal distress, which is seen as a subset of emotional empathy, this could answer what is going on in the autistic mind. Personal distress is a notion in psychology where witnessing the suffering or distress of others triggers anxiety, pain and distress in yourself, so rather than truly empathising with the sufferer you have a self-centred emotional reaction to their suffering. Essentially, it makes you uncomfortable because you don’t understand it or know how to deal with it. Arguably, this is what happened to me over the past few weeks – I saw someone in distress and it made me distressed, saw someone suffering and accordingly suffered. Indeed, people with autism apparently have much higher levels of personal distress than neurotypicals, since it’s a self-centred, immature version of empathy (and it’s questionable whether it’s a form of empathy at all). And given that one response to being oversensitive to the suffering of others is to withdraw from the source of this discomfort, this is another reason we are seen as unempathetic.

I think the truth of the matter is somewhere in between all this theorising. Yes, Jessica Whelan’s distress, and that of her parents, caused me great personal distress, making mine a self-centred, unempathic response. At the same time, however, I put myself in the place of her parents and, using my own daughter as a frame of reference, empathised with their pain. In addition, I sympathised with their predicament. And I pitied them. And I felt compassion for them. And for a few weeks cried all day, every day.

I think that is the important thing, the thing to remember. Regardless of what words we use to describe or define it, the thing to take away from this experience is that, for whatever reason, Jessica Whelan pierced me to my very core, exposed something I’d never felt before, and reminded me how important it is to make the most of each day that we get to spend on this earth with the people we love. I may struggle to understand empathy, but the pain I felt was real and profound.

And if I need a word to describe it? Let’s just say I’m ‘sensitive’.

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.