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Mythbusting common misconceptions of autism
In my first piece, Autism: How language shapes our understanding, I discussed how words commonly used to describe the condition can have a powerful effect on how it is seen by the world at large.
Human beings are a verbal species, one that often finds it difficult to accept the reality of something until it has a word attached to it – and if that word comes with a category as well then swift comprehension is assumed. People like taxonomy.
Unfortunately, reality rarely – if ever – divides itself into neat categories for our convenience.
The categories we use to describe behaviours can be very useful in shedding light on what those behaviours might mean. Yet we should be wary of treating them as immutable laws. Newton’s theory of gravity still works perfectly well in the world as typically experienced; however, as Einstein showed, it was far from the complete story.
And human brains are even more complex.
Standard behavioural models may work very well under conventional circumstances, but the interpretation of autistic behaviour through a neurotypical lens leads to a number of misapprehensions of what autistic people are like and are feeling. This in itself leads to the creation of myths and misconceptions that become so common that for many they are synonymous with the definition of autism.
And yet they are often very far from the truth indeed.
A quick caveat: before exploring some of the more widespread myths, it’s probably important to remind ourselves of the quote used in the previous blog entry on this subject:
“When you meet one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism”
– Dr Stephen Shore
One of the most common misconceptions the world at large has about autistic people is that we don’t experience emotions and that we’re the equivalent of logical androids, totally bemused by the human feelings going on all around us and feeling none ourselves.
In fact the issue is often the complete opposite. For many autistic people, strong emotions are overwhelming. They can be all consuming – and are often a contributing factor to sensory overload. On occasion they can be hard to identify due to their strength and complexity –sometimes it’s simply not enough to say “I’m sad” or “I’m embarrassed” because they don’t cover the nuance.
Apparent emotionlessness is an autistic adaptation to the neurotypical world in which we all live. Unsure what the “correct” behaviour is in response to being swamped by an uncontrollable and all-consuming emotion, we tend to just clam up. We don’t want to get things wrong.
So we’re not unemotional androids, although when a tsunami of feelings sweeps over us we sometimes wish we could be…
Related to the previous myth, but still quite distinct from it, is the idea that autistic people have no empathy. There are two likely reasons for this misconception.
Firstly, the empathy we experience can be just as cognitively immobilising as the emotions described in the previous section – possibly even straying into hyper-empathy territory, where strong displays of emotion by others almost always result in strong emotions within ourselves (which are then often hidden for many of the same reasons as described above).
The problem is we feel too much.
Secondly, the strong neurotypical emotions we pick up on due to our hyper-empathy can often trigger a cognitive overload, due to both their strength and our uncertainty as to what the socially acceptable and appropriate reaction should be. We don’t want to get it wrong and upset the other person even further (that route leads to a negative emotional feedback loop that can end in a panic attack). The lack of an obvious ‘right move’ can mean we do nothing – which unfortunately is interpreted as a ‘wrong move’ and further misinterpreted to mean we have no empathy.
Hyper-empathy can be a curse.
The third in this trilogy of typical misunderstandings arises from the same roots as the first two. Because people with autism don’t have the built-in communal programming that neurotypical people take for granted, it is assumed that we don’t experience the inner feelings that these pieces of social shorthand represent.
Small talk is a fascinating example of this. Small talk is the tribal glue that holds groups of people together and is usually as effortless as breathing – a shortcut way for people to touch base with each other and acknowledge each other’s existence.
Autistic people have to do this consciously. It took a while before I drummed it into myself that the correct response to “How are you?” was not to tell the person asking how I was, but to respond “I’m fine, how are you?” – the human brain’s equivalent of a handshake.
Forgetting these rules can end up with the autistic person embarking on a story about how they really are feeling – and to add insult to injury this might mentally exhaust them so much that they forget to reciprocate.
This can of course come across as selfish; particularly if the question was asked precisely because the person doing so had something they really wanted to get off their chest, and were expecting the response “I’m fine, how are you?” to give them permission to proceed.
In reality, a lot of the time autistic people put the feelings of others first.
We are more likely to defer to someone else’s needs ahead of our own because we already know we can handle not getting what we want – however the other person’s potentially emotional response to not getting what they want is unknown and scary.
This example might seem cynical (and indeed selfish when it comes down to it) but hyper-empathy means autistic people often genuinely prefer to be surrounded by other people who are happy.
If an autistic person offers to do something for you there is unlikely to be a hidden agenda. If you can see past the mythology, autistic people can be fiercely loyal friends who will often do anything for you.
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