I watched a movie this week called My Name is Khan. It's a foreign film following the life of the fictional character Khan, an Indian man with Asperger's. One of the fascinating aspects of the movie was Khan's ways of dealing with emotions. At one point he wrote in a journal that although he could not express emotions in language, he could write his feelings on a page, and in another scene in the movie he broke down and cried after being overwhelmed by the death of his son and his separation from his wife (another fascinating element of the movie--that he was able to court and marry a woman without ever verbally or physically expressing love or affection toward her in traditional ways).
Anyway, these explorations of feeling and expressing emotion brought to mind an experience that we had with Ben a few weeks ago. Ben had gone out into the backyard to play, when suddenly he came rushing back into the house, gulping in air while tears spilled down his cheeks. I asked him what happened, and he said, "Stockton [our oversized moose of a Labrador retriever] just jumped up on me and I hate when he jumps on me!"
I said, "Oh Ben--you're sad!" He immediately retorted, "No I'm not!" I then pointed out that he was crying. He quickly yelled, "I am not crying! My eyes just got all wet like this for no reason at all!"
No amount of negotiating could help him understand that when his eyes get all wet, it's because he's feeling an emotion that overcomes him in some way. And this isn't the first time something like this has happened. At other times, too, he has begun to cry over something and then exclaimed, "I hate when my eyes get all wet like this!" He recognizes the physical manifestation of his emotion, but he can't seem to associate an underlying feeling with it.
I'm wondering how this ties into empathy, and the challenges that Ben has both in identifying what other people might be feeling and also in responding empathetically. When Ben's great-grandfather and his grandfather both died within two weeks of each other last year, Ben's only response upon hearing that each had died was, "He did? Oh. Well at least we'll see him again when we go to heaven." That was it. He never cried, or seemed sad, or understood why people around him were crying. He did ask me during his grandpa's funeral if people were feeling sad, but when I told him they were he shrugged and said, "Anyway we'll just see him again in heaven so it isn't sad."
I went on a cruise a couple months ago, leaving my husband with the kids so my sister and I could enjoy a getaway together. Ben never cried, but he did kick out the plantation shutters in his room the first night I was gone, so I know he missed me. About halfway through the cruise, my husband was writing me an email [mostly to tell me about the new blinds he put up in Ben's window] and he asked Ben if he wanted to include a little message of his own. Ben said, "Um...sure." My husband asked him what he would like to say to me, and Ben replied, "Um...I don't know. Surprise me."
Is such emotional detachment a blessing, or a curse? I wonder often whether Ben will ever become someone who can understand what others are feeling, and want to have such deep connections with another human being that he seeks fulfilling relationships. Is marriage in his future? Will he ever have a girlfriend? Will he ever go to a school dance, or to Prom?
I find that I want these things for him--these impossible things--and my heart aches when I consider that he may never have them. At the same time, maybe he won't miss them. I just don't ever want the day to come when he feels lonely, and doesn't know what to do about it, and suddenly his eyes get all wet, for no reason at all. How do I protect him from that?