Monday, June 11, 2012

Are you mad at me?

Poor little neglected blog.  It's not that I don't have topics to blog about.  I always have a lot to say about a lot of things in general, and that is true regarding my child as well.  Several drafts have been started and abandoned over the last few months, and I will get back to them and flesh them out, but the last six weeks or so of school sucked the life right out of me, y'all.  Now school is out for the summer, and I am in recovery (meaning still waaay tired), but I had a light bulb pop on today and it is worthy of exploration.

For the last few months, Ben has been asking a question very frequently: Are you mad at me?

At first, I was thrilled that my son was seeking to identify an emotion in others.  That's a big deal.  In some kids on the spectrum, it never happens.  We have books about emotions and iPad apps about emotions and the accompanying facial expressions, and we talk about it all the time.  I am constantly asking Ben: Are you scared?  Worried?  Nervous?  Happy?  Sad?  Angry?  Frustrated?  Excited?  And using his answers as both an assessment of how I need to adjust a situation to avoid a meltdown (as I am constantly on meltdown patrol) and also as an opportunity to teach him how to adjust and deal with his feelings in an appropriate way.

But the frequency of that question increased from asking, "Are you mad at me?" when he was being reprimanded to any time I got upset or frustrated (at traffic, breaking my fingernail off into the quick, a gallon jug of water busting all over the kitchen floor, etc.) and then he began asking others if they were mad at him as well.  I began to worry.  Had something happened to upset him at some point during his day, which is a myriad of different teachers, aids, therapists, daycare workers, etc?  Was Ben afraid of someone's anger for some reason?

One of my biggest fears is that something will happen to him--someone will hurt him or take advantage of his challenges regarding expressing himself--and he won't be able to tell us.  So far, I don't think this has actually happened, though we did have a scare last fall when he had some mysterious bruises on his arm.  Thank goodness for cameras in daycares, because we were able to determine that it was an accident.

Ben said he was not scared, that no one had been mad at him, but if he doesn't completely understand the question, his standard response is no, so I still worried.  Of course I did.  How could I not?

Then we began to notice that Ben always asks, "Are you mad at me?" when he has done something he knows is wrong or has just been told not to do.  Not just on that occasion-- others as well--but definitely when it arose.  Was it manipulation--an attempt to get out of trouble?  We know he is capable of that.  It's cute when he says, "I like chocolate!" when asks about what he would like to eat, but it throws a wrench into dinner negotiations, and I do believe it is meant to do so.  Was this question an attempt to get out of a consequence?  But still, sometimes he is genuinely worried when he asks it: his voice breaks or his lip wavers, and I know he is upset.

It's hard to maneuver your way through such vague, abstract issues with kids on the spectrum, so I just didn't know.  I began using it as a chance to explain about other emotions that might look like anger and to explain to him that yes, when he does what he is told not to do, I do get angry at him but that I also still love him, as I always love him, mad or not.  But then this morning, I had a light bulb--you know, when you aren't thinking about something you've been fretting over and suddenly the answer is crystal clear and you wonder why it didn't occur to you before.

Ben is having an extra occupational therapy appointment each week this summer, and while waiting for him this morning, I read part of House Rules by Jodi Picoult, who is one of my guilty pleasures.  It's a novel centered around a main character who is an 18-year-old boy (or man, I guess) with Asperger's Syndrome.  I am not far enough into the book to recommend it or not, but the mother character was explaining how the world is completely black or white for her son--something is either right or wrong, a rule either applies 100% of the time or not at all-- and she mentioned that he asked her, "Are you mad at me?"  Before she answered, she explained this:

"I think that's the attribute I miss seeing the most in my son: empathy.  He worries about hurting my feelings, or making me upset, but that's not the same as viscerally feeling someone's pain.  Over the years, he's learned empathy the way I might learn Greek--translating an image or situation in the clearinghouse of his mind and trying to attach the appropriate sentiment to it, but never really fluent in the language."

And that's when the light bulb flashed.  A hallmark of Autism and Asperger's is missing social cues in others.  Emotions are shown to others by way of these: a raised voice, facial expressions, looking drawn or tired, or that vein that always stuck out of my father's forehead to accompany his clenched jaw when I was being a teenaged terror.  Ben doesn't read those social cues fluently.  We have taught him about them, but he doesn't naturally pick up on them.  When he asks, it's because he doesn't know; because he can't distinguish the cues for my anger at him for standing on the dining room table for the fifth time in five minutes from the cues for my pain when I rip off part of a fingernail in the car door.

He asks because he doesn't know otherwise.  It's as simple as that, and this is good news.  It's a coping mechanism, and that is the way our kids with Autism and Asperger's learn to navigate the world with people who are neurotypical. 

Will he ever inherently understand and be able to pick up on someone's emotions without asking?  I don't know.  We will continue to work with him always, of course, and I can hope for it, but I am just as hopeful that he will continue to use that coping mechanism and that the world will try to understand why he needs to do so.