“Do you still resent me?”
My seventeen-year-old creased her brow and hunched over in the car seat. She doesn’t like me talking feelings in the car; she’s captive and can’t escape. For that moment I’d forgotten and babbled on, as I do.
She answered: “No, I never resented you as such. I used to express my anger at you, because you were the closest person. Also, I knew that you were used to me expressing anger at you, so you could cope. If I expressed anger at my sisters, they might get really upset. When I’m angry, most of that is directed at myself and I’ll be more likely to hurt myself.”
“But you don’t feel that way so much now?”
“I feel with you that it’s more frustration than anger.”
“I get frustrated when things don’t go the way I plan or anticipate.”
I pulled into the car park and switched off the engine.
“Because I want to say that I love you. I want you to know that.”
I could see that upset her. She started to pull her knees up to her chest.
I went on: “Okay, to clarify, that means you make me happy when you are around, I want you to be happy and to do well, and when you are sad it makes me sad.” And she is one quarter of my heart and one third of my soul and her pain stings me sharp and should anything happen to her I would be destroyed, but I can’t say that because she won’t understand and it would upset her more. I repressed the words like I repress the urge to draw her into a huge hug.
She went mute, which was when I realised I’d ambushed her with an emotions talk in a confined space. I left her to calm herself down in the car while I shopped.
When I returned, I was surprised that she restarted the conversation. She said: “I think I empathise with fictional characters more than real people.”
“Yes, that’s because their inner thoughts and world are explained,” although it’s probably also that she doesn’t see immediate and confusing contradiction of her assumptions. There’s a structure there and you can predict what will happen. In real life situations with people she often feels like she’s flailing and drowning.
“With real people, there’s a degree of guesswork because everyone assumes people can read their emotions. And when I say ‘read’, it’s not just an interpretation, it’s like literally feeling a little bit of what the other person feels.”
“Oh I do that with physical pain, but not with emotions,” she said.
“So it’s a difference, but there are pluses and minuses to it. On the radio the other day there was a fellow called John Elder Robison, who also has autism, talking about how he had had transcranial magnetic stimulation which had increased his ability to read emotions. His wife was depressive and he and she worked well together because depression makes you interpret things as far worse than they really are. He was able to see the situation rationally and so was able to put that case to his wife and calm her down. In that way they were a good team.”
“That’s what I do with Sally,” she said. Sally is a friend who has just returned from hospital after several suicide attempts.
“Yes. But you see, once Robison had the transcranial magnetic stimulation, he was able to see his wife’s emotions, and it was too much for him. He couldn’t deal with it and he ended up divorcing about a year after the procedure.
“There is a good argument that high-functioning mild autism isn’t so much a disability but a variation. These are our scientists, IT techs, lawyers and intellectuals.”
My daughter nodded: “But the problem is that society isn’t set up to deal with us, so that makes it less of a variation and more of an aberation.”
Indeed, and that’s the subject of Steve Silbermann’s book, which we’re going to have to read now.