Tag Archives: ponder

How empathy works for me

Picture by geofones on flickr

Empathy seems to be a fairly popular topic amongst autism bloggers, for reasons which include certain autism “experts” and their opinions on the matter, and certain unfriendly ways that autism is depicted in the media. I’ve written once before about problems in how we use the word and all the things it can mean, but I have yet to opine on autism and empathy directly. I am still solidly in the stage of thinking through how it all works for me and am not prepared to make broader statements about empathy and autism, but I can certainly blog about myself easily enough.

So I pose the question to myself: just how does empathy work for me? Rather predictably, the answer is not short and simple simply because empathy seems to mean so very many different things.

The simplest version is the ability to read facial expressions. I’ll be honest, I’m not so great at that. I can determine basic expressions, like smiles and frowns and furrowed brows, but I often seem to miss subtleties. The way I once put it is that when seeing cues and such from other people, I will often see 2+2=4. Unfortunately, it may have actually been 2.3+2.7=5 and I simply could not see that .3 and .7, so my conclusion was off. So this is definitely an area where it could be said that I struggle with empathy.

If empathy is about caring about the feelings of others, than I have no real problems. I care about people a lot. A whole lot. I am not always particularly good at expressing it (actually, I am often quite poor at it, sadly) and I rarely know what to do in response, but I do care. If empathy means caring, then I am quite empathic. On the other hand, if empathy means knowing what to do, then I am not particularly empathic at all.

If empathy means feeling what other people feel then… actually, this one is tricky. I’m not sure. I do not seem to automatically feel what people around me are feeling; at least not all the time. I can and do, however, imagine myself in the place of someone else, and imagine what I would feel were I in their position. This is not an infallible method, though, as what I feel is not always going to be what other people will feel. Of course, it’s not infallible for other people either, and I have had multiple unfortunate encounters with neurotypical people who seem to use this method, but got tripped up when I turned out to be different from them. It does not appear to be only autistic people who struggle with empathy in that way, it’s just that neurotypical people have the privilege of knowing that most people will respond to input similarly to themselves, while autistic people tend to be very much different. That said, I am able to see the world from the perspective of other people; I just have to work at it a bit. So I guess my answer to this one is “sort of” but I am more aware of it’s shortcomings than many neurotypical people.

There is another area that is rather more woo-like, so I’m a little bit hesitant to write about it. That being – that I feel the presence of other people as pressure. Attention of a person is even more pressure, like standing in a stream of water. When I’m in public, I feel all the people around me as though they are pushing on me. This was actually a significant problem when I was younger, and I spent years trying to figure out how to build walls around me to keep that pressure at bay, with mixed success. That feeling of pressure from people around may or may not actually convey useful information to me, and the amount and type of pressure can vary wildly from person to person and situation to situation. If I’m not careful, it can be overwhelming (and sometimes is even if I am careful). I have no idea if this would qualify as a form of empathy or not, or even if many people would be inclined to believe me. Nonetheless, there it is, and it is definitely one of the reasons I pull away from groups and crowds, and sometimes even individuals. It can get intense.

So if a person were to ask me if I experience empathy, the simplest answer would be yes, but after that I would need to ask them precisely what they mean by empathy. It is not actually a simple word.

To anyone who feels like answering a question: how would you say that empathy works for you?

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on passing

Recently I wrote my blog post “How out to be.”  In it, I briefly mentioned that I can pass most, but not all, of the time, and much of it’s premise was on the fact that sometimes passing just isn’t possible.  (also, please note – in my blog when I talk about “passing” I am specifically referring to hiding disability)  While I never explicitly stated it, I imagine it would be entirely reasonable for a reader to assume that if I could pass 100% of the time, the question on being out would have a lot less pressure.  Not only that, but if I could pass 100% of the time, I would.

It’s not even something I had really thought about.  It was implicit in that post because it was implicit in my thinking.  Of course I should pass if I can, of course I should try to hide my differences, of course I should make my disability non-obvious.  Then, in an entirely different context, a friend of mine shared this here link.  Now, this blog is really not about my situation at all.  It speaks of disability in terms of masculinity and feminism, and possibly importantly, it spoke of physical disability.  My disability is only physical in that it is neurological.  There is nothing wrong with my body, and it only shows to others in my behavior.  Still, as I was reading I got to this part:

“It also feels like I have spent years betraying other people with disabilities, by hiding mine, and trying to avoid as much ableism as I could, which, much like any sort of passing and any sort of systematic oppression, is always a losing game.”

The author was speaking of passing as able-bodied (not-disabled) and eventually no longer being able to.  And that really struck me.  I thought (well, not in words since I rarely think in words, but this is how it would roughly translate into words), ‘waitaminute, you mean to say that not passing is an option?  And that it might be the right option?  What?’

It actually took a few days for my brain to work through that one.  Who would have thought that deliberately not passing was an option?  Now, I have seen plenty of discussions on the perils of passing.  I have seen people talk about how challenging it can be to pass, how it can feel like never being allowed to be oneself, how they are worried that their ability to pass may be going away, how annoying it is that when you pass people think that means you don’t have problems anymore, and on and on and on.  Never once have I seen someone say that maybe it’s better not to pass.  Because of course you pass if you can.  It’s better that way.

Importantly, there actually are good arguments in favor of passing.  AS does not always get a lot of respect.  I have seen some say that the increases of “mild” autism is making the public think that autism isn’t a big deal, and that such people are taking away much needed resources from those on the more severe end of the spectrum.  I tend to feel ashamed and guilty when I see such statements and I have yet to figure out how to resolve the inner conflict that comes up when that happens.

Additionally, there are people out there who use AS as an excuse to be assholes.  I have no idea how many of them are actually on the autism spectrum as opposed to people who think AS simply means “socially awkward” and decided that it would be a good excuse.  In any case, that has also shaped public opinion.  I don’t want people to think that about me.

Yet another thing – as I mentioned, AS isn’t physical.  Even people with physical disabilities face challenges that they should be able to do what everyone else does if only they want it badly enough, or if they’re just willing to try hard enough.  With a disability like mine, that attitude becomes so much stronger.

Plus, the fact of the matter is, society only tends to tolerate differences so far.  There are accepted ways to be non-conformist, and if you don’t conform to those ways society tends to punish you.  Having AS means that I am different in ways that many people really do not accept.

All that seems to add up to my prior implicit assumption – that if I can possibly pass, I should.  But then I think about the blog post again.  And I wonder if maybe letting myself be who I am might be the right choice in another way.  I could try to reduce the stigma around mental illness.  I could be an example that disability does not have to be physical.

Or in a less grand, societal way, I could think in terms of bettering myself without mashing that up with also hiding myself.  When people use language metaphors I could let it show that I need a little time to decipher them instead of trying to race my way through the logic to figure out what they mean while not letting on that I need to do so.  I love the idea of not being ashamed of being different.  That would take a lot of courage, though.  To be painfully honest, I’m not sure I have that kind of courage.  Especially not in the face of the challenges to not passing I mentioned above.

I feel it is important to mention – this is not simply a matter of being out.  I can be out and still work on passing for normal, or conversely I can refrain from trying to pass for normal but not be out.  In any case, people intellectually knowing that I have AS is a very different thing to people actually witnessing the ways that I struggle, or even spimply witnessing my oddities.  Heck, even stimming in public is a thing aspies try to hide.  Even nice people will look at me funny and avoid me if I’m rocking in a public place.

I don’t really have an answer to this one.  It is a very new ponder for me and I have barely begun to wiggle my way around it.  Still, I find it interesting to think about, and the idea of simply being my literal, strange, stimming self without trying to hide it all the time is very appealing.  Scary, but appealing.

Thoughts would very much be welcome.

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