Empathy

Five Seconds of Summer

“5SOS” — slightly big among the tween girl set. With Ryan? Not so much. (Photo from Flickr)

At some point in the journey, every autism parent hears that people on the spectrum “lack empathy.” When our children are still young enough that we don’t know who they will become or how they will develop, we learn that they will likely never understand, or at least struggle to understand, the feelings of others.

Only, it’s not true. As in all things parenting (special needs or otherwise), your mileage may vary — but in my experience people on the spectrum are characterized by a difficulty in verbal expressions of empathy. That doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t there. Not by a long shot.

Saturday night, our backyard. Veronica and I are enjoying a glass of wine on the patio. Ryan and Riley each are begging us to play with them, but we suggest they find a way to play with each other. To our surprise, it works. Soon, they have devised a game that involves Ryan taking a slap shot at a beach ball with a hockey stick. He hits it deep into the backyard and Riley goes running after it. It seems she has to retrieve it by a certain count or Ryan gets a point. Or something like that. They were engaged with each other. That was enough for us.

I recall looking at Ryan lining up his “shot” in the fading daylight and casually remarking “this will end injury,” before heading inside.

Sure enough, a few minutes later Ryan came running into the house in great distress, telling me that Riley was hurt.

I dashed outside to find Riley crumpled in the yard, crying and holding her face. Her tongue was bleeding. Her lip was cut.

As we hustled her inside to get some ice on her fat lip, the story came out. She came upon Ryan just as he was taking his shot, and got smacked in the nose and mouth full-bore with a street-hockey stick. It certainly sounded accidental. Riley did not blame Ryan.

She was lucky — she got away with a couple scratches, a slight black eye, and some bruising on her nose. Nothing more evident than the fat lip.

It didn’t matter that it was an accident, or that Riley wasn’t seriously hurt. Ryan was very upset with himself. He apologized profusely and asked her over and over if she was OK. Searching for something that would make her feel better, he ran to his room.

Soon, a Five Seconds of Summer song was blasting from his computer. Ryan had found their video on YouTube. Riley loves “5SOS” (and if you have tween/early-teen daughters in the house I’m sure you’re familiar with their status as the “it” boy band of the moment.

It was a nice moment, and Riley appreciated it. I think she even managed a smile.

Here’s the thing, though. Ryan hates 5SOS. Like, with a capital H. Ryan is an old soul when it comes to music, and is entirely dismissive of Riley’s taste in modern pop music (hmm, I wonder where he got it from? … Guilty).

For him to seek out and play her favorite music was a tremendous expression of empathy. He was trying to do something that would not only make her feel better, but show what lengths he was willing to go to do so.

Empathy? In spades.

Bonding – Without Speaking

Ryan on the subway

On our way to Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Ryan’s iPod makes such trips much easier.

I spent much of what was a three-day weekend alone with Ryan. Friday, we went to buy him new skates, went out for pizza lunch, and went for a long walk together.

Saturday we took our second (annual) trip to a Yankees game. We left the house before 11 a.m. and did not return until 6 p.m. On Sunday, we watched more baseball together on TV before my early evening adult-league hockey game. So Ryan, as has become routine, accompanied me to the rink to watch the game, keep stats, call play-by-play and generally critique my play. Apparently I played “OK” but got “undressed” on the first goal. I protested that it was a two-on-one, and I overplayed the shooter, who was his team’s best player. It wasn’t my fault he made the perfect pass for a back-door tap-in. You know what? Never mind. I’m never going to convince him.

Some of our time together was spent engaged in deep conversation — about the nuances of baseball, about how my team should play on Sunday, etc. But there were also long periods of relative silence. Ryan used to struggle with any stretches of downtime. He complained of boredom on even the shortest car ride. Saturday, a pair of 90-minute train and subway trips to and from Yankee Stadium passed without so much as a hint of a problem.

The key is Ryan’s iPod. We bought him one several years ago when he first showed an interest in music, but it went unused until about a year ago when he finally agreed to try it on a car trip. Since then, he rarely agrees to go anywhere in the car without it. These days, he can pass an hour with barely a word, so long as he has his music.

Saturday’s trip into New York was spent largely in silence, interrupted by the occasional question about baseball statistics. As soon as we arrived at the stadium, the iPod went into my pocket. It wasn’t needed. Ryan was fully engaged in the ballgame, tracking every pitch, at-bat and out. He asked a million questions. His need to construct rules to understand a new activity is perfectly suited to a sport like baseball, with its myriad of statistics and where every pitch is an individual, quantifiable event. His brain soaks in such information like a sponge. Despite being a relative baseball newbie, he already understands esoteric concepts like earned vs. unearned runs.

I had to laugh at one of his questions. I was explaining errors — plays on which it is judged that the fielders should have recorded an out but failed to do so, or made some other mistake that allows a runner to advance. I told him that if a run scores as a result of an error, that run is not charged to the pitcher since he is viewed as having done his job but has been let down by his defense, thus creating “unearned” runs.

Ryan nodded, and within seconds asked the one question that I distinctly remember wondering about when I first learned the same concept around his age.

“But what if pitcher is the one who makes the error? Is it still an unearned run?” he asked.

The answer is yes, but I agree, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I told him the same thing has bothered me since I was a kid. And then I smiled. I love those moments when life offers proof that he and I aren’t so different after all.

On our train ride home, Ryan was deeply engaged in his music. I was browsing Twitter on my phone. Neither of us had spoken for several minutes, which was fine.

Ryan leaned against me, removed his headphones and said something that made me smile, and caused a catch in my throat. I’m pretty sure that at that moment, there was no phrase in the English language that could have made me happier. It served as proof that we don’t need words to bond. We simply need shared experiences and time spent together.

“Dad,” he said. “This was awesome.”

Photo Friday: How We Roll

Image

Walking with Ryan

On a walk with Ryan

Ryan and I were home together the entire day. We were supposed to play pickup ice hockey today but a misplaced helmet (later located) scuttled those plans.

So we instead we ran some errands, went out for a pizza lunch and went to a nearby walking trail for some exercise. Ryan insisted on bringing his iPod, so I brought mine. Together, we banged out a 3.5-mile walk, managing to carry on a pleasant conversation despite the headphones and music.

That’s what I call a full day.

Summer Progress Report

Ryan camp trip to NYC

Catching up with Ryan on his camp outing to New York City.

Ryan doesn’t do subtle. If he wants to tell you something, he just comes out and says it. This creates its share of awkward moments, but on the whole it’s a good thing. Ryan’s pronouncements don’t often require much interpretation.

They also tend to arrive completely out of the blue, current context be damned.

Last night, we were watching a bit of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game when Ryan told me, “Of all the trips we’ve had at this camp, I don’t think there’s been a bad one yet. I really have to say I’m liking this camp.”

It was music to my ears. The day camp Ryan attended the last few years wasn’t perfect. There were occasional issues and complaints from Ryan. But overall, it was a success. So when that camp ceased operations before this summer, we were concerned about finding a suitable replacement.

We ended up putting both kids in a young teens program that involves lots of outings — amusement parks, sporting events, museums, etc. — mixed with days at the local pool. We liked everything we saw and heard at the camp’s open house and in follow-up correspondence about Ryan with the director.

But on day one, we pretty much crossed our fingers, held our breath and hoped for the best. So it was a huge relief to hear Ryan pronounce it a success halfway through a four-week session. He has taken part in every trip and is gradually integrating himself into the other activities. He still talks about difficulty fitting in and worries about “popular kids” — showing the leftover scars from some of his school-year interactions — but he seems to be finding his comfort zone.

Earlier this week, the camp’s day trip took the kids into New York City, very close to my office. I took a chance that I could intercept them on their lunch break at a nearby park. After wandering around for a bit, I spied the group. I saw Ryan first, but he didn’t see or hear me. I caught up to the group right as Riley was walking by. She gave me a casual hello and then went right back to interacting with her friends. Pretty much exactly how I would have reacted at her age.

I moved ahead to catch Ryan. I got a chance to watch him interact with some of his peers. He was clearly in conversation with a couple of the kids. I saw enough to gain the impression that they were including him and welcoming his presence.

When Ryan saw me, he was thrilled. A huge smile crossed his face. “Dad! You came!” he said, grabbing my arm and guiding me to the group of chairs where he and his acquaintances were sitting for lunch.

It was such a sweet moment, a genuine sentiment, issued without regard or consideration to how his peers might view it. I suppose that has both pros and cons, but the memory of it still makes me smile. I think having a child who says what he thinks without concern for how his peers will react — whether driven by calculated choice or by difficulty interpreting how one is viewed by others — is probably a net positive.

I stayed for a few minutes before heading back to work and leaving both kids to company of their friends, boosted by the knowledge that for all our fears about a change in routine, camp seems to be working out. Sure, there are a few bumps in the road, but my son can’t fake happiness any more than he can hide his displeasure. His mood when he saw me told me all I needed to know.

All In

Baseball broadcast booth

Ryan is getting ready for his turn in the baseball broadcast booth the only way he knows how — by going all-in. (image from fangraphs.com)

The soundtrack of our compact house often sounds like this: a constant pounding — two-finger, hunt-and-peck style — on the keyboard in Ryan’s room as he types his hockey stats. Music from his iPod speaker, usually early vintage U2. And lately, the squeaking of his Air Jordans on the hardwood floors.

To all those sounds are occasionally added Ryan doing play-by-play of a hockey game. If he’s playing with his Hockey Guys, he accompanies the action with his announcing. His style is a mish-mash of catchphrases from various NHL play-by-play men that he has learned to mimic. Sometimes he watches online highlights from YouTube or NHL.com on mute, and instead calls the action himself. He asked for, and received, and “announcer’s headset” for Christmas, and has learned how to record himself on his iPad as he describes the play in front of him. No matter what, he does this at top volume.

Ryan will spend a week this summer at a sports announcing day camp run by a local television sports personality. Because of the time of year, the focus will be primarily on baseball. The campers visit a minor-league team and learn to conduct interviews. For the camp finale, they do play-by-play for a minor-league ballgame.

Ryan has a nascent interest in baseball. He is nominally a Washington Nationals fan. When we attended a Yankees game on a spur-of-the-moment outing last summer, he spent the train ride in studying the agate in the sports section of the newspaper, and then spent the game peppering me with stats questions — all in an effort to build a set of rules (ie, how many hits in a game is a little vs. typical vs. a lot) that help him understand and enjoy the game.

With camp approaching, we reminded him of the need to spend a little more time on baseball. In his typical fashion, Ryan approaches this the same way he does a school assignment. When he decides it’s time for baseball, he’s all in. He watches an entire game, refusing to miss a single pitch. He even kept score with me for a recent game.

And yesterday, when we walked through the camp schedule with him and suggested he might want to work on his baseball play-by-play, he threw himself into the task with the same 100% commitment.

I showed him how to find full game highlights on MLB.com and he was off. Suddenly, the top-of-his-lungs shouts coming from his room were about deep drives, home runs and great catches instead of slap shots and great saves.

He kept at it for close to an hour, causing Veronica and I to exchange a look of amazement at his singularity of focus. When Ryan decides he wants to do something — play hockey, ride a bike or get stronger — he rarely deviates until he has accomplished his goal.

That level of focus? The ability to pour oneself into a task until it is mastered, shutting out any and all distractions? I can’t do that.

It’s a gift, one that’s part of his unique brain wiring. And it is my sincere hope it is a gift that will carry him far — to a fulfilling car and a contented life.

A few years back, I might not have recognized it as such. But Ryan forces me to re-evaluate my thinking about autism on a regular basis. I recognize the challenges. I get frustrated by the difficulties. I have concerns for the future.

But along with all that, I have learned to appreciate the gifts.