Saturday, June 9, 2012

Autism diaries XXXIV: But is he a sociopath, II

He doesn't torture little animals and cut them into bits, as bonafide sociapaths are said to do. Nor has he done even once what some 'normal' little boys I know have done regularly: burn bugs with a magnifying glass.

But he doesn't hesitate to throw a mat over an errant mouse and squash it. Nor, when we return from a trip and discover that our cat has left a dead mouse "welcome home gift" on our basement floor (as we did the other day), do we hesitate to ask him to pick it up and flush it down the toilet (J being the only of us human residents who doesn't flinch at the prospect).

And then there are some suggestive things he's said recently. A few weeks ago: "Earlier, I thought it was OK to kill people, until you told me that you can go to jail for that." This echoes a disclosure I blogged about earlier: "Sometimes when I want to do something bad part of my brain says 'no' because it knows I will get in trouble."

Being bad makes you feel sad. This is the refrain I repeat whenever he shares with me a mischievous "what if I" scenario. And this little rhyme, evoking the feeling you get when your mother withholds such privileges as answering your questions about ceiling fans, has become intrinsically aversive. But can we take this a step further? Can a moral compass be acquired through operant conditioning?

However sad being bad makes you, it's hard to suppress the temptation--a temptation that, just a few days ago, he put into words for the very first time:

"Sometimes I do bad things because I like to get a reaction."
"But why don't you like getting a good reaction?"
[Short pause.] 
"Getting a good reaction is harder than getting a bad reaction."
Unfortunately, he's probably right. When he does something wrong, he can rely on us to take predictable measures to undo it; for positive behaviors like putting things away (as opposed to throwing them around) or fixing them (as opposed to breaking them) there's nothing to undo. Furthermore, people are quicker to notice things when they're out of place or messed up than when they're restored to their proper circumstances.

Beyond this, how often are our displays of delight and gratitude anywhere near as as salient (in the rapidity of our response, the volume of our voice, and the explicitness of our facial expressions and body language) as our displays of fear, anger, or dismay? And how often is eliciting someone's pleasure as obvious, simple, and straight forward as eliciting their disappointment?

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