This might be a really bad idea… I’m thinking to write a series of posts about Asperger-type autism topics which we on the spectrum generally prefer not to discuss. Either the topic itself, or my personal view on it, is not usually aired in public. These are issues which autists tend to be highly sensitive about – they are the things we find difficult, our deficits.
So why break the taboo and risk a backlash?
My thinking is only that we can hardly complain that we are misunderstood – the common AS lament – if we do not open ourselves up enough to enable understanding. Sometimes that means admitting the areas in which we fail. Maybe fail is too strong word, too negative? But it certainly feels like failure when I am unable to meet the behavioural expectations of others, and myself. It would be good to re-frame this sense of failure and find a way to accept the limitations inherent to my neurotype – but first I feel I must shine a light on the actual nature of those limitations.
In order to write from experience, I’ve chosen topics which affect me. The spectrum being as broad as it is, not all will have the difficulties in these areas that I do; equally I’m sure others will have difficulties in other areas which I don’t mention. It’s possible some may be issues with my personality rather than autistic traits as it’s hard to separate the two. And I present only my own opinions and can’t claim to speak for anyone else. So with those caveats out of the way…
Topic 1: Empathy Deficits
Naturally, this one is a sensitive topic – because who wants to be known as the person with no empathy? Ugh. It feels like being labelled a psychopath.
Some get upset when this comes up and will automatically deny having an issue. The common, knee-jerk response tends to be: “That’s not true! I feel plenty of empathy.” Certainly, for myself, I can have a very strong emotional response to others’ distress, I can really feel their pain. Do not doubt this.
But the denial of deficit is based on a misunderstanding of the full meaning of empathy. It is more than an emotion, it is not only about feeling others’ pain. Empathy also involves: (a) timely recognition of what someone else is feeling; and (b) understanding (and demonstrating) an appropriate response. Or perhaps I should say a “neurotypically appropriate response”.
Autistics generally have deficits in these areas due to our difficulties connecting with others. Some might assume that your reaction to a situation would be the same as theirs when it is not (I’m not upset, so I assume you aren’t either). We also have varying degrees of difficulty picking up on the clues that someone is in distress, unless it is visibly obvious.
Personally, I don’t do too badly on recognising others’ distress but even once I know, however badly I feel about your pain, I may not know the appropriate response, or may feel uncomfortable enacting it. I may stay silent out of fear of saying the wrong thing and I may be wary of touching in case it crosses boundaries. I may assume you would wish to deal with your distress without my input and walk away, or else, my feelings of empathy may be so overwhelming that I just freeze up.
The commonality with psychopathy, then, is that with both conditions one can appear to be uncaring towards others.
The type of empathy deficit is actually completely different between these conditions. Psychopaths have a deficit with “affective empathy” – that is, sharing and being affected by the emotions of others. Autistics have a deficit with “cognitive empathy” – that is, the ability to know another person’s state of mind.
The psychopath may know that you are upset but does not care. The autist typically cares very much, once s/he knows, but may react inappropriately.
This is not exactly a taboo topic, in so far as many have described the different types of empathy in order to deny the implication that autists lack feelings or compassion. It is my personal view on the issue which is controversial.
My personal view is that it matters very little what I am feeling inside, what matters is how I behave on the outside. I can have all the affective empathy in the world, but what use is that if I am unable to act on it appropriately? I might not deliberately harm people as a psychopath might, but I’m still going to let people down, I’m still going to fail to provide them the emotional support they need in a way they can use. It is by our feelings and our actions that we express our humanity.
I understand why my view is unpopular. To present autistic traits in a negative light may seem at odds with the neurodiversity paradigm, the idea that our differences should be accepted, or even celebrated. But I am not against the concept of neurodiversity, and certainly I agree that autistic minds can have great strengths.
The way I see it, we all want better inclusion of autistics in society, and acceptance of our differences in the way we interact, whether within personal relationships or at work. To gain to acceptance, however, first we need to understand why we have those interaction difficulties. How can we expect people to accept our divergent behaviours with no explanation? That is why I believe we need to start with open recognition of our deficits, however uncomfortable this may be.