Saturday 18 December 2010

The grammar of emotions

This blog entry was meant to follow straight on from the previous one. Somehow or other seven weeks have happened in between.

On one of the first occasions I visited a therapist in connection with Euan, I raised the subject of empathy. I was starting to understand that autistic people struggled to connect with others around them, and asked if Euan would ever get into a situation where he felt sorry for someone, but didn't know how to express it. 'Oh no,' she replied; 'an autistic person wouldn't think like that'.

This seems to have been the prevailing view until quite recently. Autistic people didn't identify with complex feelings because they just didn't have them. Their emotional lives were elementary and functional; they were essentially monochrome, oscillating between docility and extreme anxiety with nothing in between. It was supposed to be comforting, implying that they were inoculated against the nuances of deceit, betrayal, double-dealing and insincerity. They were innately honest, since they didn't perceive the value of saying or doing things purely for appearance's sake.

Yet the more I saw of autism, the less satisfied I became with this explanation. Not least because it seemed to alienate autistic people from mainstream society: if they didn't grasp shades of emotion, it implied they couldn't form deep and meaningful relationships. But also because it didn't chime with what I observed in my children's development. Although he struggled to intuit what other people were feeling, he was capable of understanding them if he was given enough clear signals. When Magteld went to bed one afternoon with a migraine, he went upstairs and got himself ready for bed without a word of fuss, even though this is usually an exhausting operation that can last several hours. When Adam swept his juice off the table in a rage and soaked himself, Euan screamed in sympathy, then fetched the kitchen roll and diligently mopped up the spill. These are not the actions of someone who can't feel your pain.

Here's a more contentious example, but intriguing nonetheless. During the summer we went to see the boys' great-grandmother in Holland. She's been widowed for some years, lives on her own and doesn't have much social contact. Her house has a large L-shaped living room that feels empty even when half a dozen people are sitting in it. Usually Adam is stubbornly indifferent to family members he doesn't see very often. But when we came to leave his great-grandmother after visiting for two hours, he suddenly started crying plaintively and calling out for her. It was so out of character that the only explanation we could think of was that he somehow picked up on her sense of loneliness.

The more I see of these responses, the more I think the problem is not so much a lack of empathy: with the right cues their empathy can be remarkably sophisticated. It's more an inability to decipher those subtle signals that people give out at times of emotional conflict - a failure to jump the chasm between what people think and what they say. If it's made explicit to Euan that someone is feeling sad, or tired, or sick, he can respond appropriately, but if you wait for him to work it out for himself, expect to be disappointed. A few autistic people have told me of the painstaking efforts they made to understand the invisible rules that others lived by, and the light-bulb moments when they manage to work out the correct response in a certain situation. In some ways it's like the difference between learning a native language and a foreign one: either way you have to learn the grammar, but the foreign student needs a textbook.