Autists Laugh at Tragedy
When I went to visit Princeton in 1990, as a prospective graduate student, I remember meeting the professor who had been in charge of the search committee. I thought that he knew that I was only nineteen, that I had only graduated from high school less than two years before. I thought that Princeton had admitted me with a full scholarship because I had done something that I thought was truly extraordinary, getting a B.A. and M.A. in two years’ time, as well as getting a perfect score on the verbal portion of the GRE. Instead, everyone seemed surprised to discover that I was a teenager.
During my interview with this professor, I laughed. Repeatedly. When asked about my age, I laughed. When asked about my plans for the future, I laughingly talked about my plans to become a professional writer. When asked about my year at a German Gymnasium, I laughed.
I didn’t find anything about this interview funny. I was laughing because I was terrified. I was suddenly unsure that I was capable of starting (let alone finishing) a PhD program at the university that was currently ranked number one in the country for German Studies. I was terrified that everyone was going to hate me. I was terrified that they would all regret letting me in. I was terrified that I wouldn’t fit in, would not make any friends, would flunk out and be a failure for the rest of my life. I was a prodigy who wasn’t sure (as many prodigies are) that I would become a success as a full adult.
But I had a special problem. I was an undiagnosed autistic. It would be another twenty-five years before I had even an inkling that this was the name for my problem. Sure, I knew what autism was. I would become a volunteer helper of an autistic child at my church only a year after this interview. Autistic children were supposedly incapable of speech. They didn’t make eye contact. They were likely to be permanently disabled the rest of their lives. I wasn’t any of those things. I had plenty of problems, but I didn’t understand what they were.
It often appears that autists don’t have empathy because we don’t follow the social script that proves we have empathy. I am frustrated sometimes because I watch allists (neurotypical or “normal” people) pretend to empathy with these social scripts. They have the right sad facial expressions and the body language that indicates that they feel for others. They know the right words to say. I often lack these things. And it turns out that I’m accused of being unempathetic especially in social situations where I look away from other people’s intense eye contact and don’t like to do hugs and — laugh sometimes when I should be crying.
Let me explain briefly why autists sometimes laugh in the face of tragedy. It isn’t because we don’t feel sad. It is often because we feel so overwhelmed with sadness that we no longer have control over how our body expresses the overwhelming feelings, which come out as laughter. It is very frustrating to me that I don’t have control over this, that it makes me appear immature, or at my age, just a horrible human being. I try to keep control. I try to follow the social scripts that I know make allistic people feel better, feel like I am empathetic. But it really has nothing to do with empathy. It has only to do with what appears to be empathy.
I’m sorry that I laugh when it is deemed “inappropriate.” I am sorry that I don’t show empathy in socially approved ways. I’m sorry I don’t always know the right thing to say. I’m not sorry I’m autistic, though, because being autistic has taught me so much about being human. It has taught me a lot of about the difference between appearance and reality. It has taught me the dangers of people who look like they show empathy. It has taught me to be very wary of people who pose as empathetic. And it has taught me that laughter is just a release of feeling. It doesn’t mean humor or amusement.
Just as crying doesn’t always mean sadness. Not for me. Not for us. I am often sad without showing any of the normal signs. Sometimes I just shake. And I ask for allistic people, you normal people who think you are so empathetic, to be able to stretch yourselves just a bit further to accept that my expression of feeling may be different than yours, and that you could try to see the world from a different point of view sometimes instead of making assumptions that everyone is just like you.