Empathy and humor seem to be deficits in many kids with autism. However, Ben shows signs of having a capacity for both. Take his curious fascination with crying. If there’s a baby in crisis, Ben’s finely tuned radar will pick it up.
This happened the other day at the park. Ben was running in a zigzag motion across the grassy field, tapping his straw compulsively, when a toddler some 50 yards away erupted in a sea of tears.
Ben hands me his straw and runs over, at first hovering around the baby like a helicopter, then mustering the courage to approach the stroller. He bends down to take a closer look, standing face to face with the baby with very little wiggle room. I’m a few feet away and ready to intervene if necessary; however, Ben is invariably gentle with other babies (and adults too!). For a moment, I imagine that if the baby could speak, he’d snap at Ben:
“Back off, dude – give me some space while I cry.”
I smile awkwardly at the mother and walk over to offer my help: “Ben, come on, it’s time to go.” The baby, it turns out, has calmed down considerably and appears to appreciate Ben’s solidarity with his little crisis. You always hear about the autistic kids who are gifted in mathematics or memorization or music. Maybe Ben’s gift is in the realm of the heart. Bill Clinton thinks he can feel folks’ pain. He has some competition.
I can’t help but wonder why Ben is drawn to the anguished sound of a crying baby. Is he being empathetic or is he simply curious? Does he attach meaning to the tears or just hear the sound? And then there’s Ben’s threshold for pain. When he falls, he usually registers no signs of pain. Rarely are there tears – and when there are, I oddly find myself quietly celebrating, as tears indicate he is feeling something, breaking through, thawing. The mysteries and paradoxes are many. The fact that Ben rarely cries himself but is intrigued by others’ tears – what does that suggest, if anything?
Another time, at the same park, my 4-year-old Ryan was being bossy and perhaps too aggressive with another child at the playground. The little boy began to cry and whine in frustration. Ben immediately registered the incident and announced to no one in particular: “He’s sad.” I did a double-take. The past two months he had barely spoken a word – and when he did, it was never for the sake of conversation, but only to advance his most immediate needs, like “hotdog” or “mustard.” The baby’s mother, with whom I’d become friendly, was aware of Ben’s issues. She was surprised, she told me later, by Ben’s comprehension of what was happening and his empathy for her boy. This was a good day. And for some unknown reason, the catalyst again seemed to be a boy’s tears.
This theme continues. Searching for a way to connect with my boys, I tried a fake-crying routine some weeks ago. It seemed to work well, especially for Ben, who to this day routinely and repeatedly asks me to do my crying shtick, as if he were requesting a favorite song from a D.J.
This is how it works: I close my eyes and start to breathe heavily. I sniffle and start to tear up. Then I really start to cry and let it all out, a crying fit that culminates with a desperate plea for “Mommy.” Both my boys eat this up. But the amazing part is that Ben is initiating the play and understands that Daddy is acting and that it is funny, or, at any rate, supposed to be funny. Then we go around the circle and I say, “Ben cry.” He covers his eyes and lets out a “Waah.” Then it’s Ryan’s turn. Last week we even recruited Papa; it was funny and moving to see an 81-year-old former lit prof playing fake-cry with his grandkids. And the dynamic between Ryan and his older brother was revealing. Ryan has, if by default, become the leader in spite of being the younger brother. But in the case of the crying routine, Ben owns it and often initiates the play, while Ryan is a participant who follows Ben’s lead. The roles are reversed.
Seeing Ben initiate and participate in play, or show empathy for – or even awareness of – other children, may seem like small feats for a 6-year-old. But they are reason for hope, and lately that is enough to make my day.