Wednesday, September 7, 2011

9/11 Reactions From an Aspie

With the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, there is little one can do to avoid the onslaught of stories, new and old, from survivors and witnesses. With empathy, as it relates to Autism, being on my mind lately, I can’t help but look at what happened that day and in the years that followed and wonder how anyone could think that people like me are incapable of empathy.

Like most people, I remember vividly where I was that morning. At the time, I shared an office with another employee, who insisted on listening to a radio station I hated. The morning show was particularly annoying to me and I did my best to tune it out. For some reason though, on that morning, I was the one who heard the words “fire” and “World Trade Center” and turned up the radio.

The news was sketchy at the start of it all. First we heard it was a fire that had broken out. Then that a “small plane” had hit the north tower. Then that it was a commercial plane that had crashed by accident. We turned on the news in the conference room. Then the south tower was hit and, with it, came the realization that this was no accident. We were under attack.

Soon the news came in about the Pentagon and flight 93 in Pennsylvania. We watched in silence as the south tower collapsed. I think I was the first to speak, though I can’t be sure. My own voice sounded foreign to me as I said, “Oh my God. There’s no way they got everyone out in time.” I don’t remember saying anything else.

Once the north tower collapsed, the news was all words and pictures of the devastation. I couldn’t watch any longer. The images of fire and smoke and ash and the tear-streaked faces of witnesses were too much for me. I felt the overwhelming need to make myself useful, so I fixed a toilet in the ladies room that hadn’t been working.

The rest of the day was a blur. My office is on Walt Disney World property and there was fear that Disney might be a target. We stayed open, but business came to a halt. No one was calling or coming in. They were, like us, glued to the news reports. I wanted to go home.

I went to my mother’s house that night. We ate ice cream and watched the President’s address. I bought two new pairs of shoes that weekend. I moved out of my apartment and lost my job a month later. By Christmas I was still unemployed. In January, I was rehired. I moved again in March. In November, my niece was born and my mother got engaged. Life went on.

Now, ten years later, I still cry reading the stories of the victims and survivors, the heroes who sacrificed themselves, the search dogs who kept looking despite their exhaustion, the children who lost their parents and the parents who lost their children. I find myself full of sadness, pride and wonder when I think of Todd Beamer and the words, “Let’s roll.” Though I know no one who died that day, I grieve.

I also struggle with anger towards people who insist that, because of a few extremists, all Muslim people must be violent and bent on the destruction of all other cultures and religions. This is no truer than saying all Roman Catholics want to kill Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians and Pagans because of what happened in The Crusades or that all Fundamentalist Christians want to bomb abortion clinics because people like David Leach tell them to. I despise people who refuse to look at an individual person’s actions, but instead lump them all into a group.

We on the spectrum are often misunderstood in this way. We may not express ourselves in a way that is perceived as “normal”, but this does not mean that we don’t feel. When you’re watching the 9/11 memorial dedication this weekend, know that I’m watching too and that my heart aches for the lives lost just like yours.

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