dinosaur love
12 July 2002

The other day Damian came into the bathroom while I was on the toilet. He clambered onto the stool, investigated the blue tile surface of the built-in cabinet, checking for seashells and combs and other delights of the bathroom. Then he turned to me and said, "Hello my lovee." And added, just in case I hadn’t gotten the point, "You’re my lovee."

Later that same day, he kissed me, saying "I love you, Mommy." He’s never said that. Not with that kind of spontaneous affection. It’s always been in the context of our bedtime ritual. It’s something I’ve been waiting to hear for, oh, four years now. Since he was born. Wondering, not if he loved me, but if he’d ever be able to access the feeling and come up to me out of the blue with a hug and an "I love you." And now he has. Something’s happening, something’s shifting inside of him.

A few weeks ago, Damian stood at the fridge, exploring the magnets: he pulled the lever on the slot machine magnet, he put the telephone magnet to his ear for a pretend conversation. I turned the hot water on in the sink, started to wash dishes.

My elbow brushed the crowded countertop. A blue-and-gray ceramic mug went crashing to the floor. My favorite mug. Handmade, bought at a craft fair, with a lovely hourglass curve. Smashed.

As I knelt to gather the shards, Damian joined me, helping. He chattered about what we were doing, as is his wont: "The cup broke. We’re throwing the pieces away in the garbage can. The cup broke and now it’s in many pieces." Etc. Not communicative language, exactly. More like a running commentary, a narrative. But I seized the opening: "Yes, I broke the cup and now I’m upset. It was my favorite cup. I’m really sad."

We’ve been doing this with emotional situations since… well, since his diagnosis a year and a half ago. Stating what’s obvious to us but not so obvious to him: how we feel when something bad happens. Or something good, for that matter. How emotions tie into events, how things make you feel. And it clearly helps him when we identify his own emotions. "Anger" is easier to get a handle on than "this-huge-overwhelming-chaos-inside-me." But when we talk about our own emotions? Not so much. He seems disinterested. Bored, even.

Not this time. As soon as I said I was upset about the mug, he put down the ragged-edged piece of mug and came crawling into my lap. He leaned against my chest. "Mommy, don’t be sad." He tilted his head up, kissing me. "A kiss will make Mommy feel better."

A true moment of empathy. I’ve been waiting for this for years. And the next day, after a frustrating (several) moment(s) in the car, Dan got out and sat alone on a stoop. Damian kept worrying about him, "Daddy will come back, Daddy will come back soon," until I finally let him out of his car seat. He went running up to Dan, giving him a kiss and a hug. A kiss will make Daddy feel better. Dan, needless to say, felt much better.

So is he an empathic child now? Well, yes and no. We were roughhousing a few days later. Damian accidentally bonked me in the nose with a heavy gardening book. I told him it hurt. A lot. He didn’t react. It was as if my words were meaningless, gibberish. What was different? Did the empathy disappear as quickly as it came? Or was something else at work?

I have a theory. I think Damian – and this may be true for all kids on the spectrum – does and always has responded when we feel pain, whether emotional or physical. But he had no way to filter intense emotion, his or other people’s. I think it scared him. It was easier to shut it out, to not overtly react to our upset. Sometimes he did react, but so strangely. He’d grin or giggle, as if I’d made a joke.

Strange, right? Autistic, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Once, some years ago, I was working on a low budget movie in New York. I went out for lunch. When I came back, the editor I worked for said, "I have some bad news. Bill died last night." But she was giggling. I thought she was making some kind of sick joke, since I’d just talked to him the day before. But she wasn’t. She just couldn’t control her reaction. His death spooked her, I think, and the laughter came bubbling up, unwanted but unavoidable. Nervous laughter. I think when we’re confronted with something we simply can’t process, something too awful, too overwhelming, it’s as if our synapses misfire and we laugh.

Everything is overwhelming when you can’t trust the information your senses deliver to your brain. It’s a gradual process, developing enough emotional understanding. With Damian, it started with identifying his own feelings (anger is easiest, it seems), then having empathy for toys. He would toss a scuffed up toy mouse across the room. Dan would pick it up and have it cry, pout, feel rejected. Damian would bring it back, including it in his games again. Maybe even have his froggie kiss it on the nose. It was another leap from that to this new compassion for other people and it’s still another to empathizing with our physical as well as emotional pain. Layers of an onion. Getting closer to the vulnerable core of what makes us human. Understanding each other’s feelings and our own.

A few days ago, he was flinging his arms out. Smacked me in the chest. Hard. I was in real pain. Damian backed away, eyes wide. Dan suggested he apologize to me. He did, very sweetly came up to me and said "I’m sorry, Mommy."

On the other hand, we were all in his room a day or so later, lazing in the bright wash of afternoon light. Dan sprawled out on the bed, I leaned against the wood toy box. Damian stomped around, pissed. Dan and I were talking instead of playing with him. This is not how things should go when the Center of the Universe is present. He fished in his toy box, pulled out the perfect weapon: a rubber dinosaur. Started whacking me with it. It didn’t hurt but that wasn’t the point. It’s not okay to hit, whether with fists or Tyrannosaurus Rexes.

I confiscated the T-Rex and told him I was mad. He backed away. Wide eyed. Also pissed about the whole confiscation thing. Dan suggested he apologize, that I’d be happier and maybe even give him back his toy. Damian refused. The difference? He’d meant to hurt me.

He’s perfectly willing to say he’s sorry when he really is. Not so willing when it’s a lie. Pretty human, huh? Funny how you measure these things when you have a child developing by careful stages. The fact that Damian will apologize when he’s truly sorry, when it was an accident and adamantly refuse when he’s not means he’s not saying it by rote. He’s fully cognizant of what he’s saying and feeling, at least in that moment. And that’s a pleasure. Even when it means I have to put up with ten minutes of yells and demands to give his weapon of destruction back to him for round two.

So much for being his lovee. Nice while it lasted. Childhood is about extreme emotion, I think. It’s just a question of not taming but rather training that emotion so it doesn’t take over.

He did eventually apologize, though in the most grudging grunt you ever heard. I hugged him and gave back the dinosaur. And life went on.

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