Camille and I began walking to her Saturday trapeze class a few weeks ago. It's not a long walk at all. Sometimes we talk. Usually about Skyrim which is Camille's latest obsession. This time she said "I'm bringing my Ipod." I admit I felt a little hurt. I enjoyed this time alone with Camille away from the constant demands of the other children. But I also knew she wanted to work on her trapeze solo. As we strolled along, we kept taking an ear bud out to share songs that we thought might lend themselves well to trapeze routines.
Midway to the studio, I saw Camille stop out of the corner of my eye. I paused as she knelt down thinking she had to tie her shoe. Instead, she carefully picked up a long pink brown worm from the sidewalk and placed in the grass. She stood and flushed a little when she realized I stood watching her.
"I just wanted to get him to safety," she said.
"That's fine." I said.
We walked in relative silence the rest of the way. Camille lost in a world where she fit trapeze moves to song cues; I thinking about the fact that I had a child who not only noticed earthworms but stopped to save them.
When I first began to suspect Camille was Autistic, she was two. I didn't know much about Autism having only known a couple of Autistic people. I read a lot though, and was always hauled up short with the idea that Autistic people were not empathic. A lot of the portrayals I read made them sound like psychopaths and narcissists. I had yet to find the many Autistic writers, I know now, and I admit I was scared. Camille as she got older did seem oblivious to other people. But she wasn't oblivious to suffering. We watched Marley and Me when she was six and she sobbed for hours. She couldn't sleep that night, and I held her on the couch as she'd swing between calm and sobbing. Maybe she doesn't have Autism, I thought witnessing this intensity of emotional outpouring.
Her relationships with her siblings was equal parts intense and disinterested. I wonder sometimes as she watched with cool detachment as they hurt themselves. But then when Umberto began to show seizure activity, she came to worried that he'd die. I wonder if perhaps her concern revolved around how these small tragedies would effect her as opposed to her worrying about him. It wasn't so much that I wanted my child to be unempathic as that I was trying to figure her out using an ableist model.
I remember her once seeing a picture of a piglet that had the headline "Look me in the eye and tell me I'm tasty" and she licked her lips and said "Yum." She seemed to develop better relationships with stuffed animals than she did with real ones. With real ones, she'd reach a pitch of sensory satisfaction and become almost violent towards them. Surely this showed a lack of empathy. I worried.
As she got older, I let go of that earlier research. I knew deep down that Camille was an Aspie as she liked to call herself. I also knew that it didn't mean the tragedy I had been lead to believe waited for us. Camille when allowed to be herself proved funny, clever, artistic, and yes, empathic.
I first saw it in full force when she became passionate about saving the wolves after the famous wolf obsession. And again when she identified strongly with the disabled wolf in a series she began reading at eight. In fact, Camille had a strong affinity with the characters she read about sometimes so intense she'd weep.
What I came to realize is that Camille felt everything with an intensity that would crack open most people. Her emotions don't come half assed. They sweep through her and over take her. I could see why one would hide behind sardonic humor (the pig incident and for the record she refuses to eat pork). Her reactions to animals came only after sensory overload. If your emotions felt like the raw end of a wound, wouldn't it be natural to be careful who you let into your life? How you responded to others? I didn't have any proof except for the girl before me. I knew Camille to be not just empathic but incredibly so perhaps more so than any other person I've ever meet. And as someone who knew all about hiding behind humor, sarcasm, and distance, it made sense to me at a personal level. I just decided to work with the assumption that Camille was not cold and remote but so intune she had to build walls to protect herself.
Thus when research came out that autism might mean hypersensitivity, I wasn't surprised at all. It only confirmed what I'd seen in Camille and in the other Autistic people I meet. Over the years, I've come to realize how the stereotypes that started so long ago (check out Nuerotribes for a pretty decent history of the discovery of Autism) effect the ways we perceive our own children and how incredibly dangerous that can be. I spent a year trying to see my child as pretty much a psychopath because of things I read about Autism. I wonder how much of what we perceive comes not from what is before us but from what we read influences the way we see. I think of how many people miss a chance to claim an identity that might change how they see their place in the world simply because of mistaken ideas, observations done wrong.
Perhaps we are missing the subtleness of a child stopping to save an earthworm.