Apr 26, 2012 0 Share

Theory of Mind and Mindfulness

Illustration of two faces with energy between them.

Sometimes it seems as though our lives are loops of learning and forgetting, remembrance and loss. This week, I've been thinking about an important truth that we tend to forget: As close as we may be to another person, we don't know what it's like to live in their skin. We don't know, experientially, what it feels like for them to move through their daily lives. And remembering what we don't know is essential when it comes to our relationships with friends and family members with autism. 

In this week's post at “A Wish Come Clear,” I shared the story of how a challenging illness helped me to feel greater compassion for my brother. Specifically, I reframed my situation by thinking about how it might be of service for my family as they navigate Willie's care. And ever since that experience of grace—the moment in which I realized that what I was going through might not be pointless pain, but might actually help us to understand Willie's experience—I haven't been able to look at the world in the same way. I keep looking at people around me, thinking about what they've been through in their lives, about how those difficult and beautiful moments might become lifelines for someone in need of compassion and understanding.

As I remember and pray for Willie this week, I'm thinking about the courage it takes for him, and for other individuals on the autism spectrum, to make their way through this world (a world that, for the most part, doesn't extend its hand in welcome). Last week, Benjamin Kellogg wrote poignantly about the courage it took for him to go to his first dance. His story made me appreciate the strength it takes for Willie to take risks, try new things, and apologize each time he has a meltdown. Willie suffers each time he loses control, but each day, he tries to begin anew. That kind of courage is, dare I say, exactly what the world needs more of. 

And, though we can't fully know what another person experiences, we can remember that the lines we draw in society—the ones that distinguish neurotypical individuals from individuals on the autism spectrum, for example—may make our lives and fates seem farther apart than they are. Being a sibling to someone with special needs means living with this underlying, yet ever-present truth: Our sibling's life might have been our own, and vice versa. In an oh-so-slightly different world, I might have been diagnosed with autism, and Willie might have been termed neurotypical. And so siblings like me (perhaps more so than the rest of the world) realize that they might have experienced the world in an entirely different way than they do now. 

We siblings see this truth with an often unsettling degree of clarity. And the way I see it, we can react to that truth in one of two ways. We can distance ourselves, overtly or covertly, from the experience of our brothers and sisters with special needs. Alternately, we can offer compassion, giving our best efforts to seeing life through the eyes of our siblings. Me? I've walked both roads. I've distanced myself from Willie in the past; I've seethed in rage at what I perceived as his tremendous selfishness. And, more recently, I've tried to love and accept him as he is, hoping against hope that that love might have the power to change my perspective, and our world. 

We may not be able to literally walk in another's shoes, but we can do something. We can listen. We can pay attention. We can do the best we can to empathize, to hear what's behind the words and actions (and even the tantrums, or the self-injury). We can help others to lead fulfilling lives, yet also have the grace to let go when things don't go as planned. And in doing so, who knows what we might learn? 

For my part, I've found the beautiful words of Kelle Hampton to be true:  “I am learning, not just in parenting but in every relationship, that multiple languages exist and not one is superior to another. The more I listen, the better I love.”