09 December, 2006

The Pumpkin Story

When I look back at my childhood, there are a number of events that stand out as examples of Autistic behaviors. One particular event that stands out is the story of my sister’s cat, Pumpkin.

Growing up, we always seemed to have cats around the house. I never had a problem with the cats; they did their own thing and purred when I pet them. In fact, sometimes they were a lot of fun to watch.

At one point, due to nature and various other reasons, we found our house without a cat. That ended when my sister selected her own kitten, Pumpkin. Pumpkin’s name was chosen for a very obvious reason. The orange colored hair that made up most of Pumpkin’s body did, in fact, resemble a pumpkin.

Pumpkin never really bothered me, so I never had any feelings of ill will towards her. Actually I am not really sure if Pumpkin was a girl or a boy, but I do know that it is customary to reference cats as females. That is one of the many odd things about the English language.

Several weeks after Pumpkin came to live with us, my mother and sister noticed that she (or maybe he) had not come around in a couple of days. My sister became some what frantic, fearing the worst had happened to Pumpkin. I was not really that concerned, as cats tend to come and go as they please. Cats are very different from dogs in that way.

The house I grew up in was in the foot hills. This meant that our back yard, which faced into the hill, was flat for about 30 feet, and then it became a 15 foot slope upwards to the fence line. At some point over the previous 10 years in the house, my parents had installed a round above ground pool which actually was set into the hill so that the top of the rail on the far end was at the ground level of the slope. Next to the pool was a rather large metal shed.

I was playing around behind the shed and happened to look into the pool. After so many years of use, the pool was now in rather bad shape. My parents had explained that the rains from the previous winter had soaked the hill side so much that it was starting to cave in the wall that was set into the slope. This left the pool unusable and it now was about 2 feet short of being full and contained a rather thick layer of emerald green algae. I knew that beneath the algae was a world of insects and tadpoles. I will tell you all about tadpoles and the green tree frog invasion some other time.

While looking into the pool, I noticed that Pumpkin was in it. She (or he) didn’t move at all and I figured that, since cats can not swim and there was no movement, she (or he) must have fallen while walking on the railing, been unable to get out, and drowned.

I was happy; I was able to figure out what had happened to Pumpkin. I knew I needed to tell my mother and my sister about it, they would want to get Pumpkin out of the pool and probably bury her. (On further reflection, I am pretty sure Pumpkin was in fact a girl.)

My sister was inside the house, in the living room or family room. (I can’t remember which one it was called; we only had one room like it so it probably was both a living room and a family room.) So I went into the living room and told her that I had found her cat, Pumpkin, in the swimming pool. I thought, at the time, that she would be happy to know that Pumpkin was no longer lost. Instead of happy, however, she started to cry and to yell at me. I could not really understand why she was so angry with me, as I had nothing to do with Pumpkin’s death. My mom came into the room to see what the yelling and crying was about. I felt sure that she would stop my sister from being so angry with me. But that was not really the reaction she had. She didn’t yell at me like my sister did, but she did talk to me in a rather mean way and scolded me for telling my sister the way I did.

I was completely confused. My sister and my mother were both upset that I had found Pumpkin and told them about it. I am not sure of what I should have said. No matter what, I did find Pumpkin and Pumpkin was in the pool. Changing how I said it would not have changed the facts and it didn’t really make any sense to try to make it more confusing.

Over the years that followed my finding of Pumpkin, there were periodic references to how I told my sister about it. Most of the time, the incident was used as an example of sibling rivalry, specifically as an incident where I was being mean to my sister. As an adult, I am now a little better at understanding why my way of saying it was wrong. It is unfortunate that I did not have the same understanding when I originally found Pumpkin, as I could have prevented my parents from thinking that I was being mean to my sister.

Recently I attended a really good seminar on parenting Autistic children. The presenter spoke for a little while on the “Theory of Mind”. Basically, the “Theory of Mind” is based off of an experiment that showed that Autistics do not think the same way as other people. Specifically, they do not think of things from other people’s perspective. Even further, the tendency is to believe that everyone’s frame of reference and understanding of a situation is the same as the Autistic’s. The classic example is called the “Sally - Anne Test”. I won't bother to repeat the whole description of the test, as it can easily be found by searching Google for "Sally - Anne test"

The fact that I didn’t understand how my sister would react or why she was angry with me is a good example of how the inability to understand another person’s perspective can cause misunderstandings and frustration from all sides.

I struggle with this difference in “Theory of Mind” even today. I frequently am frustrated by people at work who do not understand my solution to a problem or my perspective on an issue. It actually causes me a great deal of inner anger when I have to explain things. The good news is that I have gotten pretty good and dealing with this.

OK everyone else, please stop reading, this is just for my sister (who I know has read my blog in the past and I believe still reads it from time to time):

I am sorry, sister, for not understanding that the way I told you about Pumpkin hurt you. It was never my intention and I was simply excited that I could help you find your cat.


Anonymous Sandrissimo said...

Hi Brian,

I must say that if you had been my brother, I would have been just as upset as your sister, and my parents would have thougt the same thing yours did.

Now off course I can see it in another perspective.

When Yannick (my eldest) was about 3 or 4 years old, we had some guinea pigs as pets. These guinea pigs had babies and Yannick really liked holding these tiny little guinea pigs. We off course told him, he couldn't take them out of the cage, we would make him sit down and than give him a little guinea pig and stayed with hem to see if he handled it with enough care.

It was important that he learned to handle them and that the guinea pigs learned not to be scared being picked up.

Once, while we were away, he managed to take one little guinea pig out of the cage without the babysitter noticing it. He accidently dropped the little creature and it fell on the stone floor, off course it was dead.

Our babysitter was very nervous, because she was expecting us to be very angry at her, for letting this happen. Off course we weren't, she had done her best and it was just an accident.

Yannick reacted like you did, he was very calm about it, telling people that little guinea pigs tend to die if you (accidently) drop them on the floor. That made him look cruel and cold harted and he really wasn't.

He was and still is really fond of animals and is even angry with me if I kill a spider, he very carefully picks them up and takes them outside (unless they are really really big).

He would, at that time, put insects in little tictac boxes and was devastated when we made him release the creatures and bring them back to the garden. Than he could sometimes be "grieving" for loosing his ants or woodlice, but he didn't even show a hint of distress having accidentaly killed the baby guinea pig...


12 December, 2006 00:25  
Anonymous socaljen said...


Thanks for explaining this - I think it is wonderful that you are speaking for/with those who do not have a voice - I have two autie kids that I love, but sometimes truly do not understand.


28 December, 2006 10:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank for shedding some light ... our newly diagnosd, 5 yr old autistic son droping our dog down the stairs. Sadly the dog died. Very tragic. now wen the subject comes up he just sez nonchalantly " she,s dead. Wen i hear that im horrified but after readin yur post i now realize he,s not a monster, but thats how he sees it.

26 December, 2010 00:22  

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