We interrupt this conventional wisdom to bring you…
rief. With not just a capital G, but a drop cap G. That overwhelming.
I’m talking about my eight-year-old son Owen’s reaction today to the death of Pumpkin, our first family pet. Pumpkin was a betta fish and he’d been part of the household for just over two weeks before he went to the big fishbowl in the sky sometime last night.
Pumpkin appeared far more my daughter’s fish. It was Audrey who had begged for a pet, and consequently she who was tasked with feeding and helping change the water. And when we found him this morning, sunk motionless down by the tank’s hot pink and purple gravel bed, she was the one who burst into tears, as most NT five-year-olds would. When informed, Owen, who’s on the autism spectrum, appeared to react in accordance with theory of mind principles. He made no comment and showed no reaction. Just continued on his way downstairs to watch TV.
Some eight hours later, however, he simply dissolved into tears. Sitting on his favorite swing
outside, where he can spend hours inside his head, grief appeared to suddenly overwhelm him. “I’m sad Pumpkin died,” he sobbed. “I’m sad we don’t get to keep him anymore.”
As best I could, I gathered his 65-pound bereft body onto my lap. But while I soothed and comforted, inwardly I cheered.
He is SAD! He FELT! He CARED!
The tears and woe continued over dinner. “I’m sad because Pumpkin doesn’t have a family anymore,” he said. Then: “You and Daddy and Audrey aren’t going to die.”
He is extrapolating emotional significance and GENERALIZING!
Again, while trying to reassure and comfort, I found myself overwhelmed with a wave of contrary emotions: Relief, vindication, glee.
He can make connections! He DOES! THIS IS PROOF! I felt like it was target practice and I was firing the gun blasting the holes in theory of mind, which has dominated beliefs about the autistic brain for more than 20 years.
If you’ve read this blog with any regularity, you know I don’t have much tolerance for a lot of autism research. I believe much of it, or at least much what gets the attention of popular media, is far too narrowly focused on causes, particularly prenatal. But last year I was very intrigued by a piece of older research that for some reason got new traction. It posits the Intense World Theory (scientific citation here, layperson’s article here) as an alternative explanation for what is often interpreted as a lack of empathy, aka theory of mind, by people on the autism spectrum.
Henry and Kamila Markram, the Swiss researchers who crafted the theory, suggest in The Daily Beast that “the fundamental problem in autism-spectrum disorders is not a social deficiency, but rather an hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response.’
“ ‘There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough,” says Kamila Markram. “We’re saying exactly the opposite: They feel too much.”
The Intense World Theory explains both Owen’s initial, muted reaction and then his later, overwhelmed one. We had had a rather intense day. Beyond Pumpkin’s funeral, consider:
- It’s a Sunday, the least-scheduled day of the week, which always ratchets up the anxiety.
- It’s summer, the least-scheduled season. Double down on the anxiety.
- It’s the week of the National Cherry Festival in our town, whose highlight is an airshow. For the last three days, performing fighter jets have been screaming over the swing that is normally Owen’s oasis. He covers his ears and hangs in there as long as he can.
- We had gone to the festival midway earlier in the day. Though he enjoys the rides — the spinning ones especially — the noise and crowds no doubt further taxed his reserves.
And thus you have a puddle of emotion at 5 o’clock.
The scenario also recalled Owen’s delayed reaction to the loss of his favorite stuffed animal. Around age six months, he chose Tux, a stuffed penguin, as his comfort object. Tux went everywhere with us, including a trip to Florida at age three. Unfortunately, on the flight home, Tux didn’t make it out of the seat pocket in front of Owen. When we broke the news, Owen seemed to take it remarkably well. Then, ten whole months later, one night at bedtime he suddenly erupted with sadness over the loss.
Tux was obviously a greater loss, so perhaps it took more time to process than Pumpkin. Or maybe our beautiful, brave boy is getting a little better at navigating this intense world we live in.
Maybe we are, too. All those bullet points above hold true for us as parents, too. Summer, Sundays, holidays strain our coping skills, too. I thought the point of Pumpkin was to help teach Audrey responsibility. Today, I’m humbled to realize the far greater lesson in his loss.
Rest in peace, Pumpkin, and thank you.