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Mirror, Mirror in My Brain

Noah had an unusual request this Mother’s Day Weekend that might seem insensitive to some, but to me was the greatest of gifts. Last week he brought home a Wal-Mart bag with a “special surprise” he had made in his class at school. Noah has always loved giving me gifts. I read once that some autistic children gain a special attachment to one individual who becomes their “person.” I have always been Noah’s person – the one who sees him through the nastiest of circumstances. It is not unusual for Noah to describe me as his “best friend.” He was excited to have made me something with his own hands for Mother’s Day. But an opportunity arose for Noah to give in another way.

My niece has been enduring a particularly painful season of life. Adolescence is a cruel and emotionally charged time of life for any child but family circumstances have recently resulted in high anxiety, depression and crippling repetitive behaviors. The best our family has had to offer our sweet, and once spirited, girl is unconditional love. But Noah offered Clara something he treasured more.

Anticipating a visit with my mother, sister, and her children this weekend, Noah came to me on Saturday with an unusual request. He was anxious in approaching me. I could tell he was nervous by the way he was meticulously and rapidly wringing his hands back and forth. He stammered so badly at first that I could not understand what he was asking me. After comforting him, I urged him to take a deep breath and ask again. Tentatively, Noah spoke.

“Mom, I know I made that gift for you. And I really wanted to give it you only. But I don’t know if anyone has given Clara anything to say ‘I love you’ in a while. So this time, can I give the gift I made for you to Clara. Just to let her know that I think about her and I love her? I still love you, mom. But I want Clara to know that I love her.”

Noah’s act of reaching out to someone whom he knows is hurting and in need of comfort is perhaps the greatest gift he could have given me this Mother’s Day. It is so not only because it displays typical behaviors that all parents value as a sign that their children are well-adjusted and caring persons, but because it is considered atypical for persons with autism to reach so beyond their own world and into that of another. For me, this confirmed a suspicion I have had for years – Noah’s ability to empathize is heightened by his autism.

In Be Different: Adventures of a Free Range Aspergian, John Elder Robinson helps dispel the classic assumption that autistic people are trapped within themselves. He describes being informed of the motorcycle accident of a friend. In comparing his reaction to the reaction of his other friends, Robinson detected a subtle but important difference.

It is theorized that part of our ability to empathize comes from the structure of the neurons in our brain. Typically structured brains develop in such a way as to place neurons in such a format that allows them to serve as mirrors that makes us capable of reflecting the sorrow of others. Persons with frontal lobe damage, whether from traumatic brain injury or other conditions which affect this area of the brain (like autism) often show difficult internalizing the feelings of others. This is often perceived as self-centeredness. Even the diagnosis of “autism” is derived from the Greek autos, or “self.”

But Robinson describes his mirror neurons as moving “slower, and maybe deeper and stronger.” He writes

The more they took it in, the more I mirrored his feelings, and the worse I felt. Since I have trouble taking in other people’s perspectives as separate from me, I began relating this new bad feeling to myself and the world around me. I was mirroring ‘bike crash’ so naturally that my mind turned to my own motorcycle and the imminent prospect of a wreck…. The distinction between the concepts of ‘me’ and ‘you’ may be a little more blurred for me at times. As often as I’ve been criticized for lacking empathy, exchanges like this leave me feeling like I have more empathy than nypicals. My feeling of empathy move a lot slower but once they get going, look out! They’re very real.(Robinson, 113)

Noah doesn’t have less empathy than people without autism. I think autism gives him more empathy. He is routinely in tune with people around him who are struggling and in pain. Noah senses these things when I might be able to “tune them out.” But Noah’s autism enables him to feel their emotions as if he himself were in their place. In this way, I believe Noah fully experiences the humanity of those around him–more fully than I do sometimes.

And gazing into that mirror in his brain, Noah is moved to act. In fact, he was moved to act in a way that caused him personal discomfort because his feelings for Clara over-powered his own. Maybe his autism actually makes him a better human. Regardless, it was a beautiful Mother’s Day gift – from a beautiful brain.



Vangie is the Director of Sparrow's Nest Play, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching creation care, nature play and just living. She also writes, teaches and speaks about her experience as the parent of a child with Autism. She holds a B.S. in Christian Ministry and an M.A. in Contemporary Theology. She seeks to synthesize perspectives in theology, disability and ministry.

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