Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Parade of Empathy

I remember when Nugget was 3 and we were going through all the required testing prior to receiving the autism diagnosis. "Lack of empathy" was always one I checked off, for obvious reasons. He simply did not show empathy or seem to appropriately respond, or tune in to others emotions. Even if he was the cause of such emotions. If another person cried, he seemed oblivious to this fact. He never changed what he was doing or how he was acting, in response.

It was unbearably cold outside during the St. Patrick's Day parade this past year. Nugget was covering his ears as he always does if their are sounds he doesn't like. The marching band that went by was really loud, but we knew he had been to louder parades before. This just happened to be one of those days. He was not in a good mood because they had forgotten to put ketchup on his cheeseburger at the food stand. My husband and I were doing everything we could to keep him engaged during the parade. This day he was not going to have any part of the parade and would rather run up and down the sidewalks. I joined him in running, trying to initiate a game of tag. I didn't mind since it also helped keep us a little warmer. "Tag, your it, Mom!". Finally, a smile and laughter. We had overcome the cheeseburger incident and went back to where hubby and Bear were standing. He seemed to be enjoying the parade this time and even threw some of his candy over to some little girls sitting across the street from us. They had not been quick enough to grab any of the candy flying around and Nugget had noticed this. I was surprised. What made him notice? He is usually so absorbed in his own thoughts and actions, I thought.

Finally, the parade was done. Hubby had found a neighbor and was standing talking to him. Still cold, Bear, Nugget and I walked into an open school building where people were gathering to get warm. Bear and Nugget were standing behind me against a wall. I turned to look to see if hubby had followed. When I turned back, I noticed that Nugget was nowhere to be seen. Panic quickly set in. I asked Bear where his brother went. He pointed straight ahead, through a crowd of people. Nugget loves the color orange, so we had bought him an orange winter coat.  We always dress him in bright clothes since it is easier to spot him in a crowd, but looking around, I did not see him anywhere. I told Bear to stay where he was and I pushed my way through the crowd to find Nugget. I finally spotted his orange coat. But what was he doing? It looked like he was trying to lift a little boy up. I didn't recognize this child and scanned to see if a parent was close by. No one was reacting to what Nugget was doing. I started running towards him. As I approached, I saw a water fountain and realized immediately that Nugget was trying to lift this little boy up to the water fountain. I just stood and observed. Nugget wasn't much taller than the boy he was helping. He persevered, struggling to lift him up. Finally, he was able to lift the boy all the way up to the fountain. Nugget watched the little boy drinking and patiently waiting. I just stood there, dumbfounded. The boys mom had been standing right there. She turned and thanked Nugget for helping. I nodded to her, still a little surprised at what I had just seen and relieved that this time no explanations or apologies were required. We could just walk away, proudly mind you. I couldn't help but wonder what had changed. When did it change? I could not see any amount of therapy producing this seemingly natural way he had noticed and empathized with the little girls not getting any candy and noticing a little boy struggling to reach the water fountain. 

It was during the St. Patrick's Day parade this year, that I learned that the term "lack of empathy" should either be reworded or stricken from every autism checklist in existence. Nugget, who has had many anxiety and behavioral issues throughout his nine years on this planet, and still does, has proven to me that this "symptom" is quite inaccurate. Their is absolutely no lack of empathy. No therapy did this, I did not do this. It was there all along, just waiting to come out.

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