Sunday, February 6, 2011

Autism and Emotion

We recently lost a beloved pet to cancer.  She had been with us for fifteen years and before M's big regression three years ago, had an other-worldly bond with our little man that she tried as hard as she could to maintain even when his seeming indifference to her (and most everything else) seeped into  their relationship.  M is non-verbal, but I am certain that the words from a thousand languages float intelligently through that beautiful brain of his...but if only we could hear them and know that he felt the same emotions we feel, well, then I suppose I wouldn't be here writing this particular post.

Over the past nine days since we said goodbye to our dog, I've wondered what my son thinks about her missing presence in our home.  And trust me, it is a gaping hole.  This dog was a cattle dog; bossy and stubborn, loyal and loving.  She always made you know she was there, and I've done many double takes since she died because I was certain she was still there, right under my feet, about to knock me down.

It's really bothered me-saddened me-to think that M either feels no emotion toward her passing or, worse, that he feels something as great as the rest of us and it is trapped inside his body, twisting and turning and trying to come out, but not knowing how to.

We've talked quite openly about it all with M and his younger brother.  Our dog deteriorated before our eyes over the past several months in so many ways that it wasn't something you could miss even if you tried.  So why has there been no inkling of sadness from our boy?  

M shows emotions in many ways, so I know that the capability is most certainly there.  He let me know that his feelings were hurt when I yelled at him for smooshing to smithereens a sleeve of crackers recently.  He cried as if to tell me, 'I can't help that I did that!'  He lets us know he is happy to see us when we return from those rare Mom and Dad-only outings by jumping up and down, running away from us with a huge grin on his face.  

The real kick in the pants is that we will also have to say goodbye to our remaining thirteen-year-old dog in the coming days or weeks.  

Less than two weeks before we said goodbye to the first dog, we learned that the second also had an aggressive type of cancer, this one with an outlook of generally 20-60 days of life remaining after diagnosis.  Again, we have told the kids that our friend is sick and we should be especially kind toward him right now.  Is M processing any of this? 

I know it is almost cliche to bring up the 'mysteries of autism,' but this one truly mystifies me.  Some aspects of my son I am able to accept as being just as they are, but this one makes me want to dig deeper to truly understand.

And yet, I am also struck by the thought that perhaps the answer to what my son is feeling is so much more evolved than something my less-complex brain is able to conceive.  What if his reaction to his pet's death is a higher form of acceptance than the tears of my grief could ever achieve?  What if his method of coping is on a totally different plane from anything we ordinary humans are able to accomplish? I suppose that until one of those languages emerges from his brain in the form of words I am able to comprehend, I will continue to wonder...

 Mama Deb writes at This Is My New Normal.


  1. what a hard time Mama deb
    your posts touch me as always
    Sending u so many hugs

  2. I am totally with you on this one, Deb.
    You know he is processing deeply. You know he is responding. The fact that his responses are not necessarily the ones we would choose (and definitely not always the ones we understand) is pure NT coincidence.
    Oh, for a moment with the autism-scope... a chance to really get inside their heads.
    I can't imagine the grief in your house right now over the dogs. I know how much those dogs meant to all of you.
    Huge hugs.

  3. I'm so sorry for your loss and for the impending loss of your second dog. I love your openness to the mystery of what your son might be experiencing at this time. What if, indeed.

  4. What a truly honest and touching post. I am sorry for the loss of your dog and that your other dog is sick. Keep talking and explaining to your son, even though he can't express it to you in words he is processing this inside of him. Take care!

  5. So sorry to hear of the loss of your beloved pet. They are family members and the loss is very great.
    When my son was 9, we lost our dog, Bosco, very suddenly, and Jacob's reaction was much the same way as M. I was too disappointed that he didn't slow any emotion regarding the loss.
    About 3 months later, I walked into Jacob's room and he was crying. When I asked him what was wrong, he held up a picture of Bosco. Through his tears, he said he was sad that Bosco was gone.
    I'm sure your son is deeply saddened by the loss, but he is just processing his emotions differently. He may express this in a few months, he may not. But he is experiencing the loss just as you are. His expression of his emotions is in his own way.

  6. Thank you all for your comments and condolences. Susan, I really appreciate you sharing your story about Jacob. That helps me quite a bit :)