Autism and Empathy: The Yogurt Incident

T's Dream

Sleeplessness
Recently, two consecutive nights of sleep vanished into the maw of an autistic child’s dreams.

The first evening, nightmares obliged me to haul my massive pillow collection to my son’s room for an all-nighter. I tried to rest as he whimpered and wiggled.  His dozing body sought me out, burrowing into my back and belly.  I would have slept on the floor, but I sensed he needed my physical presence to remain asleep.

Our second sleepless night opened with Liev’s hysterical complaint of not needing sleep, ever.  Our usual tricks did not work.  His stubborn frenzy kept him up hours past his regular bedtime.

During the second night, recurring nightmares left him wailing for company. At 5:30 a.m., he launched an irritable, fussy day with demands of an immediate bedroom vacuuming. Hours of perseveration, arguing and intractable obsessiveness followed.

For a child who sleeps and wakes regularly, it took a jarring event to shake his sleep schedule so intensely. What caused his nighttime terror?

The yogurt incident.

The Incident

Thursday afternoon during snack time, Liev amused his peers by twisting his yogurt tube. It burst, spattering the kids around him.

One of the spattered children was Hardy. Hardy has multiple food allergies. Hardy’s milk allergy is so acute that his contact with yogurt caused edema. His mother whisked him out of school for the day.

Liev related the experience after school.  His conscientious CM, Crystalyn, filled in the remaining details—Hardy was okay and Liev expressed concern for his friend in an expected manner.

Liev did not want to talk about the incident further, so I assumed all was well.

Until, of course, he woke up with his first nightmare:

Mickey Mouse (his plush) and he were sailing on his bed in the ocean. Suddenly, Mickey began to choke and turn blue, red and then purple. Mickey swelled up and fell in the water. Worst of all–he tearfully told me—Mickey’s face changed emotion. Mickey went from happy to sad.

The next morning, he refused breakfast.  He shook with clenched, white fists, begging to stay home.  He wailed as I buckled him into his bus seat.  Crystalyn and his para-educators worked to ease his anxiety over returning to Hardy’s afternoon kindergarten class.

Weeks later, the incident still resonates. Mickey Mouse has been consigned to the attic. The sight of yogurt tubes no longer upset Liev, but no amount of persuasion will get him to eat one. Yesterday, he jogged and jumped around the gross motor room, outlining plans to keep Hardy safe. “I don’t want to hurt a friend, ever,” he stated matter-of-factly.

Autism and Empathy

The issue in autism is not a lack of empathy, but rather a profound over-abundance of it. The terror of harming another person caused my son deep, psychic unrest.  Liev thinks and cares about Hardy. He will enforce class rules to keep Hardy safe. One day Liev will generalize this event, making his own rules, lists and schedules for a safer, more orderly world.

His nascent social consciousness must be recognized and nurtured. It is easy to mistake a flat or negative affect for indifference or egoism. An autistic person’s emotional sensitivity can cause retreat–a coping mechanism to protect an over-sensitive self.  I must guide my son to reap benefits from his emotional gifts instead of being crushed by them.