This is a column posted for herword.com last January 27, 2009.
Alphonse, his nanny, my husband, and I were watching cable television early Saturday evening. “Kung Fu Hustle,” dubbed in Filipino, was on, and for lack of anything else interesting to watch in that time block, my channel-surfing fingers finally settled on that movie.
I love “Kung Fu Hustle.” I could watch it over and over again, be it in Filipino, in English, or in English-subtitled Chinese. Stephen Chow’s humor is never lost on me. And so, despite pleas and protests by my husband to simply switch to the original DVD (and save him the excruciating agony of listening to freaky dubbers’ voices), he simply gave in when my hands refused to relinquish the remote control.
We had reached the scene where Axe Gang wannabes Sing (played by Stephen Chow) and Bone (Lam Chi Chung) had stolen an ice cream cone from Fong (Huang Sheng Yi). As he and his chubby friend laughed maniacally, we could not help but join in on the laughter as well. Our amusement turned to stunned silence, however, when Alphonse shrieked and cried out loud. In another split second, he had his nanny by the head, pulling on her hair even as he started to wail inconsolably.
I was nearest to them, probably just two feet away. Nanny held her hair by the roots to prevent more tugging and pulling, and gently, we tried to disengage Alphonse’s fingers from her hair. I held him for awhile, and within minutes, he was calm enough to willingly let her go. Tears streamed down his cheeks as we tried to talk to him.
“Are you angry?” He shakes his head. “No.”
“Are you sad?” Nods “Yes.”
“Are you sad because we were laughing?” “Yes.”
“You thought we were laughing at you?”
Alphonse looked at me from the corner of his eyes, and slowly nodded.
“Oh baby, we were not laughing at you.”
He looked at me doubtfully.
“I’m sorry you thought that we were laughing at you. We love you.” “Yes.”
And with that, a smile slowly returned to his face. He gingerly wiped his tears with his almost man-sized fingers and kissed me, a sloppy and wet-with-tears kiss, which at that moment, felt like heaven.
Over the next two days, we observed two more outbursts coming in at the most unexpected moments. The one nearest to him would invariably be the object of his aggression, and would suffer instant patchy alopecia from his vigorous hair tugging.
We were worried sick. Alphonse has not had an aggressive outburst in months. The last one he had was a perfectly reasonable response to cruelty; we found out that his old tutor would hit his head with plastic toys or even a basketball whenever his attention wandered or when he made a mistake. She would mask this sadism by laughing at Alphonse at the same time, and for a while, even Alphonse laughed with her. After two weeks of this abuse, however, his patience wore thin, and he became aggressive towards her. We fired her as soon as we found out, which on hindsight, seemed very light a punishment for her cruel behavior.
After this unfortunate episode, Alphonse became more wary of us. Once, when he accidentally spilled his drink on the floor, we were shocked to see him cringe in fear and act as if he was bracing himself for physical punishment. When we consoled him and said that we weren’t going to hurt him, we saw relief etched in his face. We had to work at getting his trust again, and it took a short while, but we did.
Thinking back on these events, we soon discovered a common theme to all three outbursts: Alphonse lashes out when he thinks he is being made fun of and being rejected.
We’ve noticed that he’s been rather sensitive lately. When he gets extremely happy (and we’re thankful that he’s often happy these days), he expresses this joy in very physical ways. Often, he jumps and hops all over the house, runs in whatever free space is available, flaps his arms excitedly, and even shrieks at the top of his voice. Sometimes, in his excitement, he will run into things inside the house or unintentionally hit people with his flailing arms. He’s almost fully grown now, so the experience of being accidentally swatted is not altogether a benign one. And when people do react (as in the last outburst, when Alex asked his brother to please move away a bit as Alphonse was crowding him as he ate his dinner), Alphonse feels hurt and rejected and would lash out.
I call these his gut reactions, emotions that come from deep inside him and pour forth in torrents. Alphonse responds to the outside world in ways that are often inexplicable, and to feel the entire force of his hurt and pain in such a violent and aggressive way tells me that he is a deeply feeling individual who reacts instinctively.
And Alphonse is not the only one. Just recently, the news of an eight-year-old child with Asperger’s Syndrome being arrested for battery shocked me. Apparently, she had wanted to join in on a school party, but as she refused to remove her cow hoodie, she was forbidden to attend the party. She lashed out in frustration and anger, and ended up being arrested for her behavior.
That an eight-year-old child was arrested is mind boggling, and more so when one considers that she has a disability that limits her ability to respond appropriately within social norms. We need to understand that these children often do feel deeply, but are incapable of channeling these emotions to appropriate expressions, be it in actions or words. To judge them by the same standards as everyone else; that is, one is a brat if one acts out, is severely limiting our understanding of their views of the world.
We often label individuals with autism as “living in their own world,” which necessarily connotes that they do not mind the outside world, engrossed as they are in confines of their experiences. Living with my son and learning from the experience of raising him, however, I have found out that contrary to these long-held beliefs, they — people with autism — do so want to be part of our lives. We just need to help them feel secure and wanted in our world, to feel accepted and not judged, to be protected and loved unconditionally. Perhaps in doing so, they will know that our arms are safe and they need not fear being hurt. Perhaps by doing so, we can actually open their world to us and make them want to stay in ours.