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.