You don’t look very autistic – the case for autistic empathy

With no look of apology or shame, I make my way to what others perceive as the front of the queue and wonder at the intolerance of those who grumble at me. Without the slightest embarrassment I talk over customers speaking with the cashier and ask for directions to what I’m looking for and when I’m told off, I’m shocked at the rudeness of people. I will seize on a part of what someone has said and seemingly ignore what really matters. I will say what is logical with complete disregard for the feelings of others and will merrily chatter on topics which clearly relate to their pain with no thought for how insensitive I’m being. With no thought for the care of merchandise or people’s belongings, I have helped myself to furniture and hoisted myself onto shelves to reach something I have been told I can use and am confused as to why anyone would then be annoyed at me that I didn’t wait or ask for help. I will say hello to a neighbor coming out of her house then ignore her as she passes me in a car or down the street. I will push someone out of my way when busy doing something. Clearly I’m a bad and selfish person completely lacking in empathy?

Think again.

I have autism. Some of you will feel that proves your point, that I’m selfish, rude, lack empathy or consideration for others.

I’m also someone who cares deeply about the world, about inequality, injustice and am often the first person to help anyone who is lost, hurt, crying or in trouble. When I do, I’m not heart on my sleeve but purely practical, often if I don’t start joking about whilst doing so (because people’s feelings make me nervous) I’m rather po-faced and its very difficult to know what I feel. But what I feel is empathy, a deep caring, a feeling of wanting to make their lot easier, that life is hard enough.

So what of these other things? If I’m so empathic why do I do these seemingly rude, intolerant, unempathic things.

I’m intermittently meaning deaf and meaning blind, also context blind, face blind and lack a capacity to process a simultaneous sense of ’self’ and ‘other’. What does this mean for everyday life, for communication and interaction.

Well, aside from being told ‘you don’t look very autistic’, being meaning deaf means that I will only understand parts of what I hear. Even then I will be utterly literal and effectively ‘meaning deaf’ to any deeper level of significance not only in what other people say, but in my own speech. I am speaking on an extremely literal level. Given I didn’t get even the literal meaning of sentences till late childhood this isn’t my failing. It’s my achievement. And its an achievement that gets so many nasty looks, nasty comments, nasty judgment from others in the community, that I tend to avoid most involvement, certainly with anyone new.

Being meaning blind means that I don’t recognise what I see until a second or so after I see it. Sometimes not until I touch it or move it. Once I move an object I know what it is. This is especially so if things aren’t in places that assist their recognition. So its like being blind, meaning blind. And context blindness is related. It means that I can’t process the part in the wider context of the whole. I can’t tell which end is the right part of the queue to join. Sometimes I’ll join any group of three people thinking its a queue and its not. I see things but don’t know what they are or how they might impact on each other. So I may go after the thing I recognise or which has been pointed out to me without realising that the things I’m climbing on are people’s furniture or that I’m moving around their valued objects. All I’m seeing are shapes and colors. And that brings us to face blindness. I can recognise a neighbor who is leaving their house, but outside of their context, they are strangers, almost everyone is. If I know where I’m to find someone, I can recognise them, otherwise I appear to snub people because I’m afraid of these seeming strangers who grin at me and wave, some even use my name and I’ve never seen them before in my life.

And then there’s inability to process a simultaneous sense of self and other. This one means that whilst in the midst of an action (self) I can’t process the meaning of things, people, interactions around me. People may be speaking but I hear noise and see mouths moving but don’t know they are speaking. I see a big moving thing in my way which won’t move but don’t realise its a human with feelings. I get annoyed at all kinds of obstacles and find ways around them and without an ability to process self and other when in the midst of an action, there is not capacity to even imagine or consider asking for help because perceptually, at that time, no other human exists. I also notice others. I notice them acutely, passionately. I study them. I love people. They fascinate me. But when they speak to me or offer me something they sometimes get no response. That’s when I can find them, but I can’t process my own existance at that time. How much less selfish can a human being get.

Non-autistic humans generally imagine they have empathy. They are subjective and have enough fluent capacity to simultaneously process self and other that they would perhaps rarely see other people in their pure form, without bias, as perhaps only God might see them. Some of these supposedly empathic non-autistic people tutt at me, they attack me, they study me, they quiz me, they wait for me to ‘trust’ them enough to ask for help before doing things, doing anything. They rush me, they watch me, they attribute my processing and perceptual disorders to character faults and then seek to help me learn to ‘get over them’, help me gain ‘insight’ into my lack of empathy. I look into their searching eyes, then look away, because I see only their selfishness and can see they can’t actually see me. Their minds are in the way.

Then I go home, slightly more lonely and alienated, dust myself off for another day and determine to not be scared and to continue to love them. I look in the mirror and their words ring in my ears ‘you don’t look very autistic’.

by Donna Williams

autistic author, artist, screenwriter

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