Self Awareness

I’ve been wanting to talk about self awareness for a while now, but it always feels so tricky to me. Like empathy, ‘self awareness’ is actually a pretty broad concept that seems to mean different things at different times.

First of all, just let me say, people need to stop saying that autistic people lack self awareness. When it is said without further context or clarification it’s downright harmful to us, so cut it out. In it’s most basic form, self awareness means nothing more than awareness of oneself. I know I’m here. Clearly, I am self aware.

Sometimes self awareness seems to mean social awareness. I really hate this definition. This is when we are supposed to be aware of what other people think of us – which is actually being aware of other people’s thoughts and feelings, not our own. If I have trouble knowing what other people think of me, it is not due to a lack of self awareness, thankyouverymuch. It would be a lack of awareness of other people, and since I am not psychic, it is actually entirely reasonable of me to be rather ignorant of what is going on inside other people’s heads if they don’t tell me in some way. I still don’t see what any of this has to do with self awareness, and when people try to defend it as self awareness I am generally inclined to view them as being entirely caught up in flawed neurotypical thinking, mistaking what other people think of you for who you are.

I also read an article that tied lack of self awareness in social situations to an overactive sense of self protection, with people on the autism spectrum seeing danger where other people see none. It went on to encourage people to teach us autistic types that there is no danger in various social situations. It happened to use the ‘loud noise’ example – something people on the autism spectrum with respond to as if it’s a threat, but neurotypical people will be less likely to do. Because apparently neurotypical people know better. Only if a loud noise is physically painful, who is to say there is nothing harmful about that? If a crowded area presents an overwhelming sensory assault, pointing out how other people are happy won’t change that. Trying to convince me that I shouldn’t see groups of people as a threat only ignores the very real problems it presents to me. Not problems that “seem” real to me, but problems that ARE real. Problems that result in pain, sensory overload, stress, and decreased ability to function. Don’t try to tell me that’s not harmful. If my self preservation instinct tells me to stay away from crowds, maybe consider that there’s a good reason for that, instead of assuming said instinct must simply be overactive because you aren’t having any problems.

Now, I will actually admit that in certain areas my self awareness is, in fact, not so great. There are a number of different things that can manifest to me simply as a stomache ache. Generally when my tummy is aching I need to run down my list of the most likely things it could be (need to use the bathroom, need to eat, ate too much, feeling anxious) in order to figure out what’s going on and what I should do about it. My emotional awareness is also iffy. I am not too terrible at knowing what I am feeling, but knowing the intensity is another matter entirely. I really hate those 1-10 scales mental health people sometimes like to use to gauge how a person is feeling. When it comes to intensity of a feeling, I am mostly reduced to “a little,” “a medium amount,” and “a lot.” I simply cannot detect any finer grain of detail than that.

In other ways, though, I sometimes think my self awareness is better than your average neurotypical’s. I take pride in being as aware as possible of my motivations and desires. I generally try to tell the difference between an actual reason I am doing/want to do a thing, and the justifications I invent about it. As far as I can tell, most people put a lot of weight on their justifications and prefer them to root reasons. Justifications tend to be more comfortable and conform to the stories well tell ourselves about who we are.

Mostly, though, I want people to be more careful about when they talk about self awareness and autism. And I really wish people would stop trying to conflate social awareness with self awareness. It’s gotten tiresome, and personally, I find it much more useful to separate the concepts. Mashing them together doesn’t help anyone, except maybe people who want to feel superior to us lowly autistics. And I have no sympathy for them.


Filed under opinion

8 responses to “Self Awareness

  1. It looks as if self-awareness is similar to empathy: the word gets redefined over and over depending on what the person using the word is trying to prove. (And in that sense, the definitions that I personally like the most would probably fall in the same pattern of me fitting the word to my own preconceptions).

    I think the entire myth of us not having self-awareness or empathy comes from the fact that in order to prove that you’re self-aware or empathic, you need to be able to communicate your self-awareness or empathy. Funny, that. Using a communication impairment to prove a lack of self-awareness, or a lack of empathy. Do people even realise how much they’re fudging the issue?

    • Yeah, self awareness and empathy are definitely both words that get defined how people want them to mean. Which wouldn’t be so bad if people just explained what they meant, but so often people just assume that everyone else uses the definition they use, or that their definition is THE definition. It makes conversations really messy.

      I kind of suspect that people do not know how much they are fudging the issue, but that’s mostly because otherwise I’d have to believe that they are being actively malevolent and I don’t like believing that.

  2. PK

    This post is awesome on so many different levels. It really teases out some critical points on what descriptors mean vs. what people think they mean. And we NT’s need someone to point out the lopsided thinking we have and the lack of external perspective WE show regarding different neurologies.

    I especially like this sentence “maybe consider that there’s a good reason for that, instead of assuming said instinct must simply be overactive because you aren’t having any problems.” – yeah, how logical is the thinking of “I don’t have any problem so YOU’re fine”… Thanks for this 🙂

    • Thank you! I am very glad you like it.

      I think part of the limited NT perspective comes from how prevalent it still is for autism to be viewed as nothing more than a collection of deficits to be “fixed.” So long as that thinking continues to prevail, people will think in terms of making autistics like them rather than helping us to figure out how to exist in the world as ourselves.

  3. Reblogged this on Spectrum Perspectives and commented:
    I very much like this post for giving a clarification of what neurotypicals perceive as reality for people on the spectrum, vs. what IS reality (for this poster and probably many others).

    A neurotypical commenter noted a particular observation – “maybe consider that there’s a good reason for that, instead of assuming said instinct must simply be overactive because you aren’t having any problems.” and stated “how logical is the thinking of “I don’t have any problem so YOU’re fine”

    This is important, because it makes NO sense to – judging people’s thoughts/feelings/reactions/experiences as wrong or not valid because they are not mine. It points to a lack of awareness, perspective and empathy in the person making the judgement.

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  5. T

    Such a great post, it really got me reflecting upon the differences between social awareness and self awareness and you’re so right about us NT:s 😉 warm greetings from a very cold Sweden

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