We were at Mass a couple of weeks ago when my six-year-old had one of his more dramatic melt downs. In a previous post, I dissected a melt down that my oldest daughter had at a local sub shop. There, I talked about how sensitive ASD folks can be to ordinary visual and auditory “noise.” It can cause such an assault on their senses that they lose control.
Well, church is another place where this can happen. You are surrounded by a ton of people intoning unfamiliar words. Choirs, often mediocre in quality, sing with great gusto in the belief that high volume equals deep sincerity. Women are more intensely perfumed than when they go to the grocery store . You also have statues, stained glass windows, and spot lights to contend with—not to mention the occasional use of incense. When you look at it from an ASD point of view, church can be a disaster waiting to happen.
From Pillar to Post.
I’ve been working with my boy the past few months, taking him to the more subdued Saturday vigil Mass—and only with his next-older brother, who has recently mastered the art of respectful silence. He was doing so well that I thought it was time for the whole family to try to go to the better attended, more formal Sunday morning Mass. Katie took three kids to one side of the church, and I took the other three to the opposite side. (Baby steps. We’re not ready to be all together yet.)
It wasn’t long before I discovered that we’ve still got some work to do. The kid could barely keep himself together. He kept trying to play raucously with his younger brother, and whenever I separated them, he would break into prolonged sobs and full-voiced promises to do better. After a bit of this, and seeing that I would not grant him access to his brother, he began climbing over me to get to the little guy—which prompted more hushed remonstrations by me, which prompted louder protestations from him. And on it went through the readings and homily.
By the time we got to the Creed, my half of the family was heading for the nearest exit—with the boy bewailing his fate the whole way. His older brother found the other half, and I sat outside the church with the other two, listening to the rest of the liturgy through the outdoor speakers. At least I knew when it was time to go back in for communion.
Now much of this could be attributed to normal six-year-old rambunctiousness. But the most telling ASD sign was his lack of regard for the people around him. He had no concept that his antics or his complaints were disturbing anyone. He was unaware of the nonverbal cues given by the folks in the pew in front of us—cues that included one gentleman turning around and looking right at him with a bemused scowl on his face. Even when I pointed out to my boy that he was keeping other people from praying, it didn’t register. It was only when we got home, away from all the noise and distractions, that I was able to help him see where he had gone off the rails. And I know that this won’t be the only time he loses it. We’ve got a way to go—slow and steady—until he learns how to read a situation and act appropriately in it.
So how is this related to ASD? Because folks on the spectrum tend to have a deficit in what is known as “theory of mind.” It’s also called “mind blindness.” That’s psych-speak for the ability to recognize other people’s perspectives, beliefs, needs, and desires. People with ASD need extra help in understanding that other individuals have their own personality, think their own thoughts, and have their own preferences. What’s more, they don’t get that they themselves have a limited, subjective perspective. To a greater or lesser degree, the sum total of reality is limited to what they perceive or what they are aware of. This is especially the case when they are under stress or in a new, frightening environment. As their neurotypical peers would do in similar situations, they collapse in on themselves—only more dramatically. That’s where the term autism comes from: auto is the Greek root for “self.”
This mind blindness regularly gets a good portrayal in the television show Parenthood. One of the characters is a boy named Max, who has Asperger syndrome. In this clip, Max has a hard time navigating an ordinary history lesson. He doesn’t get that he has to show some deference to the girl in the desk next to him, and he isn’t clear on the respect due to his teacher. But as the clip shows, Max is not really being disrespectful. He’s being “a-respectful.” And that can be very maddening for the uninitiated.
The “Data Myth.”
Now all this makes a lot of sense, and it’s very helpful as I work with my kids. Very often, they’re not being bad, they’re just being aspie. And that gives me something to work with.
But a word of caution is needed here as well.
There are those who would equate mind blindness with a lack of empathy. Because ASD folks have a hard time reading other people’s faces, vocal tones, or body language, they must be incapable of making contact with them or having meaningful relationships. They’re like the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But mind blindness is not the same thing as lack of empathy. In fact, folks on the spectrum can be very loving and kind. They just don’t know how to show it. Or they show it in inappropriate ways. And that can lead to a kind of isolation in which the ASD person has few friends, if any. He wants to reach out, but he doesn’t know how. And he can have a hard time seeing when someone else is making a friendly overture to him, or he misinterprets it as something else. Then the social faux-pas happens, and he ends up alone again.
We’ve been through this with our older kids, and it can be heartbreaking. We try to help them understand what a potential friend was trying to say or do—but it’s usually wisdom given after the fact. And then it doesn’t help all that much, because ASD folks also have a hard time generalizing from a specific situation to a number of similar ones. It’s a horrible Catch-22 for them, but that’s where they are.
So we keep working with them. We especially keep working to make sure they know that they are loved and welcomed and accepted as the wonderful people they are. In this way, we are blessed to have a large family. Our kids have no choice but to figure out how to relate to other people. It’s the only way we’ll get anything done as a family! They’re getting some vital socialization right under their own roof, and we know that’s going to help them once they enter the world and try to make a way for themselves. In the mean time, they’ve got us. And they’ve got each other. And that’s just fine for now.