The unfeeling autistic
The unfeeling autistic is Yet Another Myth about autistic people we'd do well to murder quietly and then bury in a shallow grave out in the woods.
Autistics are not, in the main, devoid of feeling or empathy.
We vary from individual to individual, and your simplistic view of our makeup is a fault of your perception and understanding and not a valid commentary on our characters.
I'll come to my own peculiarities in a moment, but first, let's be clear about one thing most autistics are highly empathetic and emotional. In fact, many are overly empathetic and emotional.
The problem seems to be they have trouble identifying and dealing with those emotions, and often express them in ways generally deemed to be inappropriate.
Here's a simple example for you (and one definitely relevant to me): autistic people will often relate a story to you about themselves in situations where it seems inappropriate to the neurotypical way of looking at things because what you're looking for is empathy, understanding, and a listening ear.
That's exactly what we're doing.
Although we're talking about ourselves, that's not the meaning of it. What we're doing (in our clumsy way) is saying I understand you because I've experienced something similar, too.
To you, though, we're simply ignoring what you've said or are feeling and have decided to talk about ourselves for a bit.
It comes down to something called theory of mind, and it's something most (all?) autistics struggle with.
In essence, we experience difficulty in putting ourselves in the position of another person.
"How do you think so-and-so feels about that?"
"I. Have. No. Fucking. Idea".
"How would you feel?"
"I wouldn't care, to be frank. His reaction is illogical and won't change the facts of the matter".
Most people would call this odd form of mind-reading empathy, something generally regarded as a monolithic and desirable trait.
But it's more complicated than that.
Empathy has three components:
- Affective. Where you "catch" and share another's emotions through emotional contagion.
- Cognitive. Where you intellectually grasp another is feeling a certain emotion and why, even if you don't share it.
- Compassionate. Where you give a shit about what others are feeling.
When most people talk about empathy, they mean all three of these together as an amorphous whole with a decidedly context-dependent flavour.
Newsflash: I am being empathetic if I grok you're feeling a certain way but don't share your feelings or care about them. I'm also being empathetic if I don't understand why you're feeling a certain way or share those feelings, but do something nice for you anyway.
Where autistics typically trip up is they have strong affective empathy and weak cognitive empathy, so they know you feel a certain way but don't know why.
I am the reverse. I have weak affective empathy, and my cognitive empathy is strictly logical and so not as strong as a neurotypical's.
This unfeeling autistic's personal makeup
I am somewhat atypical, even among autistics (and bear in mind Hans Asperger's original paper was titled Autistic psychopathy in children).
There are a few reasons for this.
The first is I have alexithymia:
"[a] personality trait characterised by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions experienced by one's self or others.
The core characteristic of alexithymia is marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relation. Furthermore, people with alexithymia have difficulty distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathetic and ineffective emotional responses"
That's me, folks.
So next time you start droning on to me about "showing a little empathy", save your breath and spend the time more usefully by informing yourself.
Because there's not a lot I can (or want to) do about it.
Alexithymia means I go through the overwhelming majority of my life feeling nothing. Not numb. Just nothing. Flat. It's why I have such an epic Resting Bitch Face — there are no emotions inside to be reflected on my outside. It's rare for a human to do that. You neurotypicals are so used to reading others' faces it's a hard stop when there's nothing to read. You don't know how to deal with it, and you default to the safe but false-positive of assuming I'm angry, unapproachable, or unfriendly.
None of those are true.
The second reason is I'm generally of a stoic nature, and definitely Stoic by nurture.
By this I mean autism and alexithymia aside I have a natural disposition and have deliberately pursued a path where it means I'm in control of my emotions rather than having them in control of me.
Autism and alexithymia have placed some limits and restrictions on what I can and cannot do in these areas, but I've also added my own deliberate philosophy and practice to the mix. I'm also a libertarian and am very much of the opinion we should all mind our own business when it comes to anything not violating our rights or the rights of others.
Does this sound complicated?
Let me give you an example, and a common one in my life
A common refrain from people these days is to say they're "offended" by something someone else has said or written.
As you can probably imagine I get that a lot. Just an occupational hazard, you know? Or maybe they'll offer their unsolicited and unwanted opinion and I'll tell them it's irrelevant (apparently telling people their unsolicited opinions are irrelevant is impolite, but offering them in the first place is not. Go figure).
Anyway, my response is always to tell them, in effect, their opinions, emotions, and feelings are their responsibility and neither any of my business or my concern.
They'll then typically tell me I'm "rude", lacking in empathy, and am all kinds of different things, none of them pleasant.
Here's what's really happened:
- They offer their unwanted opinion or tell me they've had an emotional reaction to something I've said and they want me to deal with it for them (that's what you're saying when you tell someone you're "offended").
- The Stoic me is uninterested in things outside my control, like their opinions and feelings. I'm indifferent to them all.
- The libertarian me shrugs, because freedom means putting up with a lot of shit you don't like, and that's what they're having to do right now.
- The autistic me struggles to understand why they're feeling "offended" at a simple statement of truth, and certainly isn't sharing that feeling with them.
- And the alexithymic me feels disconnected from the whole thing. If there's any emotional reaction going in inside me, something clever enough to slip past the Stoic, I have no idea where or what it is.
All simple, really.
If you don't understand any of this, fret ye not. I don't need you to understand, and whether you understand or not makes no practical difference to either of us.
But I would prefer it if you accepted what I say as being the truth.
You have no idea how tiresome it is being told by uninformed neurotypicals how wrong I am about all this Cuz Reasons.
A common thread this: neurotypicals waxing lyrical and opining about things they simply don't understand and never will or can.
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate