An Aspie’s View of Death
Ten-year-old Abby loved her grandmother. Abby and her grandmother went shopping, played games, and baked cookies together. Every year on Abby’s birthday, Grandma took her to see a movie and then to a bookstore to buy her a book about science—her special interest. Abby had Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). She did not have many friends at school; her grandmother helped fill this role.
Then one day Grandma died in a car accident. Abby’s mother, father, and siblings all cried when they learned the terrible news. Abby, however, did not cry. She questioned her parents about how quickly the car was traveling when it crashed. Then she asked what Grandma’s body looked like and if any limbs were lost. She also inquired about how long it would take the body to decompose and which tissues would be the first to break down.
Abby’s parents were horrified that Abby would talk this way about her beloved grandmother; they chastised her for doing so. Then they took her to a therapist. It was the first time she had been to a therapist since she had been diagnosed with AS four years earlier.
Abby was perplexed at her parents’ reaction. She had wanted to know how quickly the car was traveling because she was trying to discern if her grandmother died on impact instead of suffering a slow, painful death. She wanted to know what the body looked like and if any limbs were severed because this knowledge would further help her understand the accident. She asked her parents how long it would take for the body to decompose because she had such a difficult time wrapping her head around how her once loving and fun grandmother, with whom she shared a special relationship, ceased to exist.
Abby did not know it was necessary to explain to her parents the reasons for asking these questions, and her parents assumed that she did not care that her grandmother was dead. They even wondered if Abby, perhaps, took delight in this tragedy.
This story is fictional but it could easily be true. According to Tony Attwood, in his book The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2007), many children with AS handle their grief by trying to collect facts about a death to understand exactly what happened. Many people seem to think that if someone has a fascination with death, he or she must take delight in tragedy. Can this be true? Sure, but I doubt that it is generally the case. Is it only people with AS who want to know detailed facts about death after a loved one dies, or is it just that they are more honest about wanting to know the facts? People with AS are generally not swayed by peer pressure, and this includes keeping silent about topics that are generally considered taboo.
The reality is that death is as natural a biological process as digestion or breathing. The fact that death ripples through the emotions and memories of friends and family does not invalidate the questions children may have about it; and these questions—no matter how morbid they may seem—are not necessarily indicators of dark, unhealthy tendencies. Furthermore, many children with AS are curious about systems and processes, and this curiosity can run the gamut from something as innocuous as how a clock works to something as unsettling as the decomposition of a body. Chastising children for asking these questions will not diminish their curiosity about them.
A fascination with death can be a way that someone with AS deals with the loss of a loved one, but it can also be purely scientific in nature—or both, as the case is with me. Recently I learned that a friend from a summer teen tour that I had attended in the late 1990s died in a tragic accident. I cried, recalling how this girl reached out to me when I found myself overwhelmed by the number of people on the tour and had difficulty making friends. (I had undiagnosed AS.) However, I also found myself trying to piece together the details of her death in my mind, so one of the things I did was look up the decomposition process online. It was one way I dealt with this tragedy, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also motivated by scientific curiosity. I am fascinated with many medical and natural processes.
As a child I sometimes asked my father, who has a good layman’s understanding of science, questions similar to Abby’s. They were usually related to deaths reported on the news; my curiosity was entirely rooted in my desire to understand a biological process as there was no grief involved. As far as I know, my father did not mind these questions. But my mother, who often overheard them, was concerned. She would ask nervously, “Why do you need to know these things?” or “Why does this fascinate you?” Would my mother have had the same reaction had I asked numerous questions about indigestion? Would she have wondered if I took delight in watching somebody vomit? I doubt it. True, the difference is that death is final and indigestion is not, but in the end both are natural processes. It just does not follow that curiosity about death indicates delight in its occurrence.
I realize that it is not pleasant for most people to imagine their loved one being mauled in a car accident or decomposing six feet under. I understand that I have a stronger stomach than most, but the answer is not to try to force a child who is fascinated with death to stop asking questions. The answer is to give him or her a “safe” person with whom to talk about it—someone with a “strong” stomach. My father would have been ideal for this role because he has a higher tolerance for gruesome topics than my mother. It could also be helpful to buy a book about biology that addresses death.
When a friend or family member dies, we have difficulty accepting that we will never see him or her again. We are bombarded by sweet memories of these people, remembering how as children we played baseball for hours during summer vacation or how just last week we went to a special exhibit at an art gallery together. We agonize over the “what ifs” that could have prevented death. What if Abby’s grandmother had not gotten into her car that day? Death is an intense, emotional experience. Please try to be understanding and nonjudgmental if your child is fascinated with it. Listen to her questions. Try to understand her fascination. You may even learn more about yourself in the process.
Julie Esris lives in Brooklyn, New York, with a mountain of books and her cat, Neptune. She runs a blog about Asperger’s Syndrome: http://eccentricsunited.blogspot.com
Attwood, T. 2007. The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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