My adoption, and a few more thoughts on that empathy thing

I am adopted.  I love my mom & dad, could not have asked for better parents.  My adoption took place and was processed in South Carolina in 1971.  During the last year, I filled out the paperwork for and obtained all the legally available documentation pertaining to that adoption.  While so-called “identifying information” (proper names of persons, institutions, etc) have been redacted, basic descriptive information on my birth parents were included.  I know that my birth mother was a college freshman.  I know my biological father was a college senior about to graduate.  I know (from the documents) that he did graduate and go on to graduate school in Florida and was the son of a doctor, though it is unclear if what is meant is a physician or PhD.  He is described as “very intelligent” but also it is noted more than once that he is a “nervous”, “anxious” man.  It is little clues like this that lead me to believe my biological father was probably an undiagnosed (and for that day and age, undiagnosable–as he evidently did not qualify for the full-on autism diagnosis of that era) Aspie.

I must have been conceived some time in the summer of 1970.  According to statements given for the record, both persons had been under the influence of alcohol (presumably at a college party) and neither in full command of their faculties.   Immediately after their congress, my biological father reportedly professed his love for my biological mother…again, this strikes me as very impulsive/immature and “Aspie”-like and offered to marry her, but she rebuffed him, as the feeling was not mutual.  Without the social lubricant of alcohol, I can only further assume–based on the assumption that my biological father was indeed an Aspie–that with both being stone cold sober, my father’s inherent social awkwardness could not be so easily hidden and that without “beer goggles” his attractiveness as an actual prospective mate fell off markedly.  Documents show he was a relatively handsome, tall blond haired, blue eyed man.  Based on the physical description of my birth mother, it seems I mainly inherited my looks from her.  She was relatively short, with brown eyes, athletic (well, ok, didn’t inherit that), and had brown hair with a reddish tint.

Before I knew all of this, I had grown a quasi-van dyke beard/mustache combo while I was still married which I’ve subsequently shaved off.  I was quite shocked at the time to note among my facial hair not only the expected dark brown hairs but some bright red and even blonde hairs that were mystifying to me at the time but make perfect sense now given what I now know of my biological parents.

My biological father evidently married another woman and was pursing a Masters-level graduate degree when my biological mother discovered she was pregnant by him and contacted him.  He offered full financial support, though he was constrained by the fact that his current wife was evidently unaware of this situation initially and it might put incredible strains on his marriage.  He was subsequently unable to follow through with financial support, despite his good intentions, owing to his own strained circumstances in Florida (even in the best of circumstances, it’s not like graduate students are exactly rolling in the dough, then or now).

All this exposition is a long winded way of getting around to the point of noting that I received on my birthday a genetics testing kit from the organization 23 AND ME, which is a genetics testing lab that is collecting samples of cheek cells in saliva samples in order to conduct DNA testing on the samples.  While it won’t give me direct information that I can use to identify my birth parents, it will give me more abstract information such as my general ethnic background, what part of Europe my mother and father’s respective families came from, etc.  It can also potentially identify more distant relatives, which could lead to clues tracing (eventually) back to my birth parents maybe.  This was my atypical 42nd birthday present that I asked for and my (adoptive) parents endorsed.  Yes, on Friday I turned the same age as the Answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. (“Six by nine equals forty two? I always knew there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe.” –Arthur Dent).

23 AND ME requires users to register their kits with their website.  Unregistered kits will not be processed.  I have done so.  23 AND ME also has surveys that users are allowed to take at their leisure.  One of them was an Empathy quiz, evidently designed (or made with input or inspiration from) Simon Baron-Cohen.  I took it.  I was largely unsurprised by the result, which indicated I have “below normal” levels of empathy.  I still have problems with Simon Baron-Cohen’s thesis and methodology, and I still assert that Aspie empathy is different than NT empathy, that measures of empathy are not some objective quantity that NTs have and Aspies simply lack, full stop.

Some of the questions definitely made me think, however.  It made me wonder why seeing an animal in pain & suffering is more upsetting to me than seeing a human who is a stranger to me crying in the street or on television, say.  I do remember I cried very much when my paternal grandfather died, as I was very close to “Pa” and missed him dearly.  I was very young, and it was not long after we’d first moved to Houston in 1979.  With the much later deaths of my maternal grandmothers and great aunt, which were also far less sudden (the proverbial writing had been on the wall, so to speak such that all knew it was only a matter of time) and less of a shock…while I did feel a general sadness, I was not moved to tears by those deaths in my adult years.

It’s also been my experience that I am capable of flashes of empathy while watching Anime characters…especially when I’m watching alone, in the dark, and let myself fully participate in the fiction of the story on screen and develop an emotional bond with the characters.  I have winced when a favorite character was slapped, insulted, punched, etc, or hit with an emotionally shocking revelation, etc.  I have cried watching emotionally impactful anime stories.  I recognize that I often feel more emotional connection and concern for these fictional characters than I do for real life co-workers, casual friends, etc.

The survey also reminded me of situations like being with my former in-laws, that is, my then wife’s family, when my former father-in-law was dying in the hospital hospital.  I remember them all crying when he died, embracing and hugging.  I remained respectfully quiet, but did not tear up myself.  I really didn’t know the man all that well, and actually, he was not a particularly nice person, only “slightly left of the KKK”, as it were.  I had no direct emotional connection to this man and thus was not moved to tears despite all the crying relatives around me.  I remained clearheaded and sober and after a brief silence, began to ask his ex-wife (my mother-in-law) about funeral arrangements and other business that would have to be taken care of.  NTs can react with shock and call this “lack of empathy” if they like, but they should be thankful for Aspies who, in crisis situations, are not overwhelmed by emotion and can still think and act logically and rationally.

I have experimented with watching Anime and trying to remain as emotionally detached and objective as possible…and wind up surprising myself after a tear splashes down on my cheek involuntarily after a particularly sad or emotional sequence.  I then let up on the emotional “brake” lever in my mind and allow myself to feel the emotions generated.  It almost feels like my body has rebelled against my mind in instances like that.  I don’t know what it means, I’m merely reporting the results of my experiment.

I recall reading in John Elder Robison’s writings that with emotional situations, it seems to take the Aspie longer to process an emotional event, but it’s not as if we feel absolutely nothing…but because we are not immediately “in synch” with our NT colleagues, oftentimes we are “written off” as lacking empathy, full stop.  We are processing the same emotional content a bit slower and sometimes reaching different conclusions and responses.  Plus, all people on the spectrum are not only at variance with the NT population, but with each other as well.  I realize that Simon Baron-Cohen is trying to be as scientific as possible by making the assumption that empathy is like a zero sum game, as an easier way to quantify data and come up with more manageable metrics,  but I still question the downsides to this approach.  Good first effort, but in the long run I think this approach will have to be replaced with more nuanced, more holistic and qualitative measures.

8 thoughts on “My adoption, and a few more thoughts on that empathy thing

  1. Yay! Finished submitting my sample into the test-tube this morning and just handed it off to our local postal carrier today as she was doing her daily rounds…saved me a trip to the Post Office or the hassle of remembering to drop it in the outgoing stamped mail basket at work Monday….very much looking forward to getting results back in a few weeks time…

  2. Congratulations on being able to request, complete, and send that in. However, why is it not a more complete test that would be more useful?

    Also, I’m confused. You seemed to have concluded that your biological dad was an Aspie merely because he was nervous. If that is correct, isn’t that assuming way too much when anyone can be nervous, especially if they just found out they were a father in his circumstance.

    Also, he seems to have moved very fast in going from creating a baby to marrying another person. I found that strange.

    They actually gave you all this info? Are you not ever able to find out who they were? So it was a closed adoption?

    • I haven’t concluded my biological father is Aspie per se. What I’m saying is the available evidence I have, received in redacted form from the social services of the State of South Carolina, would seem to indicate that if either one of my biological parents were themselves on the autism spectrum, then the father is more likely, based on the descriptions of his general disposition, but this is of course merely supposition and my interpretation extrapolated from what is known. It could be that both were NT and my Aspergers was just a developmental quirk, or a result of recessive genes not expressed in either parent, or some combination thereof. Apart from actually finding the man and asking him outright, I have no way to actually know for sure. It’s just fun to speculate.

    • Could very well be my biological father was being unfaithful to a pre-existing partner when he hooked up with my biological mother. On the other hand, Aspies can be impulsive, and it has been noted in the available literature that Aspie men tend to marry quickly once they fall in love. When my birth mother rejected relationship with him, perhaps he just moved on to the next woman at his graduate school and had already fallen in love and gotten married before he became aware of the pregnancy back in South Carolina. I really have no idea and absent being able to interview the man, will probably never know.

  3. I would like to comment – good news! I have met many people that will wince and cry at human suffering, yet they are mimicking a societal response.
    I for one did not always cry at human suffering, like many of us, we were trained to regard it as a movie.
    I would cry when I saw animals affected as I have as yet, not been attacked by any! And even so, I know that they are in essence children, so I will care for them more.

    It is only lately that I have been starting as such, to feel.
    To me empathy was actually a way to feel, and if it is done through anime, TV or in watching others, then it can be achieved. To me, empathy is the affirmation of the self despite others, not the affirmation of others feelings. 🙂
    Thank you! I look forward to more postings!

  4. Wow, Carmen, that’s thought-provoking. That explains a lot for me and makes me reconsider my experiences personally and my experiences with others.

    • It takes anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks for them to extract and test the DNA, assuming my provided sample contained sufficient quantities. I do know my sample was received, but it is still “in process”.

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