A few weeks before my son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS on November 1, 2001, I read a list of traits for people on the Autism Spectrum similar to the one found here. As I evaluated my son from my parental perspective, I knew before the testers had finished their report that my son had some form of ASD. I also suspected this possibility because of interactions with a childhood friend who had special needs. Understanding these symptoms and traits prepared me for receiving the news that my son’s psychological testing placed him within the spectrum border. As a person with PDD-NOS, he is borderline. He has several high-functioning tendencies. Through therapies and education, he has continued to improve and gain skills. But, there is one ability he has that I believe defies the lists and can only be described as a gift.
He has empathy.
The characteristic “Have difficulty understanding, or showing understanding, or other people’s feelings or their own” is one I can say with confidence rarely describes my son. From the time he started early-intervention classes at the tender age of three, he would come home and share with me who was not at school due to illness. Recently, at nearly 21, he came into my room after watching Ken Burns’ Country Music to inform me through a choked-up voice that Patsy Cline had died in a plane crash when she was 30 years old. I asked if he was sad.
“No,” he said. “I’m concerned.”
He has grown up with hearing me sing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” among other songs that made her famous. So, it didn’t surprise me that he knew the name. Nor was I surprised that he understood that Cline died tragically and tragically young. I also wasn’t altogether surprised that he specified his emotion. We’ve spent time redefining “angry,” “scared,” and “happy” into more definitive terms like “frustrated,” “anxious,” and “excited” when applicable. I was pleased he came up with the word “concerned” when “sad” might have been the easier word-choice.
But, here’s the main thing worth noting. He doesn’t know Patsy Cline.
He has expressed concern for the illnesses and deaths of family and friends. That alone would place him as higher functioning on the ASD scale. But, to feel concerned about a complete stranger? That removes him from the scale entirely.
A few weeks ago, as I’ve shared in recent posts, my son exited his transition program. The reasons aren’t worth specifying except that they could have been avoided with better communication. But, as was true many times in the last two years, my son kept expressing concern for others.
“Something’s wrong,” he said.
Whether it was a change in how others responded to him, to how they treated each other, or to our specific situation, I think he is right. Something is wrong. I sensed it, too. Maybe it was what I didn’t sense that ought to have been expressed. Empathy.
Although for my part, I have to admit that as a person with an abundance of empathy for most people and situations, I struggled to have it in this set of circumstances.
My son did not have this struggle.
He felt pure empathy for everyone. I think he felt it every day. I think he felt the whole room.
When I read “Have unusual reactions (over or under-sensitivity) to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel,” I wonder at my son’s unusual over-sensitive reactions to the feelings of others. Whether it’s an ASD trait or a genetic one, I accept his gift to feel the room with exuberance, appreciation, and awe.
Yet, I did feel apprehension and, for both our sakes, gave him a word of caution. In essence, this is a paraphrase of what I told him.
You have a gift. Some will embrace it and accept it and love you for it. Some won’t get why you’re giving it to them, but will take it anyway because they think they deserve it. Others will not get it and worse, reject it. They simply won’t want it. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have it within themselves to reciprocate the gift. But, mostly they resent the fact that you have had it within you all along when there is no reason based on who you are that you should have it. So, know when to share your gifts with others, but also know when to stop giving.
I encouraged him–and myself–to do something else. Pray. When we pray for people who have harmed or disappointed us in some way, we release our anger for them. I’ve discovered from personal experience I can no longer be angry at someone if I sincerely pray for that person.
Sometimes we do as the song says. Maybe it’s crazy. Yet, still, we love.