Most people who know a little about autism know something about the “mind-blind” theory of autism that concludes that autists lack empathy because child autists supposedly struggle to understand the concept of other people’s minds not having the same obvious information that they themselves do. Other popular theories of autism include the “extreme male brain” theory that argues that autists, whether male or female, tend to have more male traits from lack of empathy to speaking loudly and being rude. Mirror-neuron theory also suggests that autists lack certain neurons that encourage them to mimic others, which leads to lack of empathy. Yet once previously undiagnosed autistic women are added to the mix, there are many questions about the idea of lack of empathy, because female autists can sometimes be described as “over-empathetic.”
The idea that autism makes you unable to express empathy is so common that it comes up often when I tell people I’m autistic.
“You can’t be autistic. You’re so empathetic.”
Instead of realizing that autism isn’t really about empathy in any of the obvious ways that have been easily assumed, people assume that my diagnosis is incorrect, though I sought it out because I had self-diagnosed previously and wanted confirmation. I’d begun to see certain patterns in myself, from sensory sensitivity to difficulty parsing body language, a common complaint that I lacked normal facial expression by my own children, an intense need for a lot of alone time and quiet, and rules/schedules that I hated to vary from.
Because I’m autistic, and grew up being bullied and seen as “other,” I think I developed a deep understanding of the ways in which social interaction often serves those in power. Even as a child, I often noticed the other children who were likely to be marginalized. I would try to defend them, which made me even more othered. And then I began to learn empathy even for the bullies, partly as a self-protective mechanism because I needed to be able to better predict their likely future reactions. I spent hours a day trying to figure out other people’s motivations.
I’m not going to claim that I ever got very good at reading facial expressions or body language. I don’t think I ever really did. What happened instead was that I started to put other cues together. I would see a larger picture of what was going on around me, all of the children and then the adults, as well. When a teacher humiliated a child, I knew what the reaction was going to be. When I heard a group of friends arguing, I knew that someone was going to be kicked out of the group. When I saw a popular kid, I would try to analyze everything they did that made them popular. I couldn’t duplicate those things (and sometimes didn’t want to), but I could see the dynamics. I became a keen observer because of my autism, even if I wasn’t diagnosed at the time.
Because I was so socially isolated and because I like quiet alone time, I also spent a lot of my childhood reading books by some of the best observers of human nature in the world. I would read books during recess as I roamed the playground, trying to avoid bullies. Autism is the reason I became a novelist, and probably one of the reasons that I’m so good at getting into a character’s head.
I also believe that talking and writing about autism in an open and honest and detailed way, ignoring prejudice and answering questions directly, has helped me to help other people become better humans, as well. By showing that there are other ways to live, and that assumptions about autism are deeply wrong and damaging to the autistic community, I believe I’ve helped neurotypical people to see the humanity in autists and I think seeing humanity in others may be the very definition of being a good human. I hope that the way I talk about prejudice against autistic people is honest, sometimes funny, sometimes sharp, but never hurtful. Because I have been hurt so many times, I am very, very careful not to hurt other people. It is the last thing I want to do.
I have spent a lot of the last five years wishing I weren’t autistic, wishing I could change all the parts of me that feel embarrassing, inept, foolish, naïve, or simply defective. But on good days, I wouldn’t change a thing about myself. Not because I think I’m perfect, but because living this painful and difficult life has made me a better person, and I wouldn’t want to undo that.