I have a memory of my mum exclaiming one day when Dylan was a baby: ” He’s crying real tears! Look – real tears!” I wasn’t sure why mum was so pleased; for me the tears were only a cause for concern. I busied myself adjusting blankets and fussing around, trying to stop the crying.
I wonder whether that memory has stayed with me because of the subsequent absence of tears? Dylan doesn’t cry tears now and I don’t have any memories of him crying tears as he was growing up. I don’t know when he stopped crying; for all I know the tears which my mum saw when Dylan was a baby are the only ones he ever cried.
The link above is to a cute animation which explains the three different types of tears which we cry (basal, reflex and emotional). I’m puzzled as to why I never see Dylan shedding basal or reflex tears, which have a physiological purpose and which we don’t control, but for purposes of this post my particular interest is in emotional tears. Not that we are always in control of emotional tears:
I struggled to hold back the tears…
I felt myself welling up…
Then the flood gates burst…
I fought back the tears…
While there are things we can do to avoid it, some tears fall no matter how hard we try.
It’s OK let it out…
That’s right – have a good cry…
And once ambushed by tears they can be hard to stop:
Come on now, dry your eyes.
The animated film makes some observations about the social context of emotional tears which may be relevant to autism. There is a tearing spectrum in the general population which ranges from people who cry easily through to those who claim that they never or rarely cry. Some people suggest that the propensity to cry is linked to variables such as age and gender: boys learn early in life that it isn’t ‘masculine’ to cry tears and so tend to suppress them in public. Gender and age are not plausible explanations for Dylan, however, who lives his life without reference to stereotypes about what is or is not appropriate behaviour (I’ve written about this here and here).
My observation about Dylan not shedding tears relates not just to his ‘public face’ but also to his private life. One of the benefits of autism is that Dylan doesn’t have two faces: there is no pretence or deceit about who he is. So although Dylan doesn’t produce ‘real tears’, he isn’t capable of crying ‘crocodile tears’ either. Crocodile tears, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are ‘tears or expressions of sorrow that are insincere’. The expression, apparently, comes from folk lore that crocodiles weep in order to lure their prey, or that they cry for the victims they are eating. A Wikipedia entry notes that: ‘while crocodiles can and do generate tears, they do not actually cry’. This distinction between the physical act of shedding tears and the behaviour we understand as ‘crying’ emphasises the role of emotion. Thus the Cambridge Online Dictionary defines crying as ‘to produce tears as the result of a strong emotion, such as unhappiness or pain’.
Am I suggesting that Dylan doesn’t feel pain or unhappiness acutely enough to shed tears? Absolutely not. Dylan’s emotional life appears to me as intense as anyone’s I have known; although he sometimes seems confused by his feelings, he experiences them passionately. For some years I have been convinced that ’empathy’ – something that has been thought to be impaired or limited by autism – is a quality which Dylan has in abundance (I have written more about this here). I would go so far as to say Dylan sometimes over-empathises with others. Certainly he is capable of showing concern for those he believes are in distress.
There are parts of Dylan’s favourite films, for example, which he cannot bear to watch: a scene in ‘The Lion King’ when Simba is in the ravine during a wildebeest charge and a scene in ‘Pinocchio’ involving a whale are two cases in point. Dylan has watched these movies hundreds of times: he knows the inevitability of these scenes and that everything turns out alright but none of this matters to Dylan who feels distress and anxiety for the lions and the puppet boy no matter how many times he watches these films. Dylan’s sorrow and feeling for the characters he loves is tangible and real; at these times he runs from the screen and lays on his bed pummelling the mattress and vocalising, his face twisted in tearless agony.
These feelings for somebody else – which seems to me to be a mix of empathy (being able to identify with the character’s suffering) and sympathy (caring about the character’s suffering) – have also been demonstrated by Dylan in relation to real people. On various occasions over the years Dylan’s teachers have reported his concern and care for fellow pupils in his class who have become upset, and Dylan’s obvious distress at their unhappiness.
One of Dylan’s particular anxieties has always been crying babies; the sound triggers in Dylan such levels of distress he is prone to sudden flight reaction. As Dylan tries to escape the crying baby, he clamps one of his arms tightly over his head in an attempt to block the sound of crying. ‘Baby crying, baby crying’ he shouts in distress. Recently it occurred to me that if you didn’t know anything about baby behaviour then the sound of one crying might be fairly alarming. Why should Dylan take the sound of a baby crying in his stride, as if it didn’t matter? Perhaps Dylan’s extreme reaction to crying is triggered by his concern that the baby is distressed. So I have started saying to him: ‘The baby is crying because it wants a drink’ or ‘The baby is OK. Don’t worry. It isn’t hurting.’ This seems to help a little.
Could Dylan have been getting upset all these years because he thinks crying babies are hurting babies? If so, that might suggest that Dylan feels both empathy and concern. My sense is that Dylan understands crying is something we do when we are distressed and that he cares about the distress of others. I’m not sure, though, why he doesn’t cry tears himself. Perhaps crying tears requires an emotional self-awareness which Dylan currently lacks (this possibility is discussed in one of the links below). Or perhaps he simply doesn’t like the sensation of salty liquid on his skin.
This link is to a post on autism and crying by a blogger who is herself autistic:
The blog includes some links to related readings which raise some interesting questions for me in relation to Dylan. One article suggests that emotional tearing is linked to Nerve Growth Factor (NGF), for example, and another stresses the role of the endocrine system in emotional tearing. Research in this area is apparently very limited but I can imagine might be relevant to those with an interest in the biochemistry of autism. A further issue raised is the ‘developmental shift from vocal crying to visual tearing’ which could also be relevant given ‘developmental delay’ in autistic children.
Sources of images (other than Dylan) unknown but appreciated.