Empathy and Emotion

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MissLunaRose's avatar

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I can tell you this with near-certainty: Everything you think you know about autism and empathy is a lie.

"Lacking empathy" oversimplifies and distorts the truth. Autistic people have a much more complicated relationship with empathy than a simple two-word phrase can describe. Some of us claim that we have too much empathy. Others say that no, we truly are deficient in empathy. Who is right?

Both sides!

Let's look at empathy deficiency first. It doesn't mean what you think it means.

When Audrey integrates a conversation function with respect to pizza, you know things just got complicated.

When empathy is hard

Empathy is hard for me. So is algorithm analysis. (I don't like that class. It's a lot of homework.) And honestly, the cognitive load involved here can feel kind of similar.

It's time to share a quote from Cynthia Kim, a writer who is brilliant at explaining autistic brains.
"By [lacking empathy], I don’t mean a complete absence of empathy; I have an empathy deficiency.  If most adults are “doing empathy” at the calculus level, I’m still in Algebra II and solving for X in ways that would make your head spin." Cynthia Kim
Kim's analogy is by far my favorite, because it matches my experience. The desire is there, but the skills are weak. Figuring out what someone else is thinking can be a cognitive challenge. I find it easier to do basic calculus than to figure out what's going on in my mom's head.

Facial expressions and body language are not my native language. I prefer the clarity of precise words, of explanations and things said out loud. I really love Cynthia Kim's piece on empathy, so I'm going to quote her again, because she says it way better:

"If you didn’t know someone’s dog had died, would you find it easy to understand and share their emotional state? Probably not. You’d pick up that something was wrong, but you wouldn’t be able to truly comprehend how they felt until they explained the source of their distress.

For me, all the little things that people communicate nonverbally or hint at or imply are like a whole bunch of secretly dead dogs. Until some says, “your comment hurt my feelings because ________” all I have is a vague feeling that something is off. Maybe not even that."

Many autistic people could be described as "unable to take a hint." Well, we can't take something if we didn't even know it was there!

Like Cynthia Kim, I do best when there's clarity. I want people to explain feelings, because until then, I'm scrutinizing them and making hit-or-miss guesses. I try hard to tell when I've upset someone else, but I get a lot of false positives that way.

What empathy deficiency can look like in an autistic character:
  • General emotions are usually understood, but not subtle ones. Many autistic people understand broad emotions, like "happy" or "sad," but nuanced ones might be difficult. For example, I have a hard time picking up condescension, so I'm happy when I'm watching a movie and Mom says "they're being condescending to her." Now I understand why the lady is frowning so much!
  • They will make observations, but not know what they mean. Audrey knows that Bob is clearing his throat, but she has no idea what he wants!
  • They adapt by asking for lots of clarification. "Are you mad?" "Did you roll your eyes because you don't want to be here?" "Are you sure you were really just looking around, and you're not lying to avoid hurting my feelings? If you want to leave, please tell the truth or I won't get it." "So... did you like the surprise party or did it scare you?"
  • They need to think before responding. Taking time helps them figure out the best way to respond. This might mean that the autistic person spends some time in silence absorbing what was said, and then speaking.
  • Clarity and honesty are key. Communication will be hard between your autistic character and any characters who refuse to voice feelings. Your autistic character is going to do a lot of guessing, and often get it wrong.
  • Their anger radar will give false positives sometimes. Others' loud/abrupt actions may mislead a quiet autistic person to think that the other person is angry, even if they are not.
  • Others can help. Other characters explaining nuanced feelings (e.g. "I felt a little left out, which is why I was fake smiling") will help improve communication.

In summary, we care about other people, but the whole "figuring out what's going on" part of our brain isn't exactly above average.

Misleading theory of mind

Some of you might be familiar with the Sally-Anne test. For those of you who aren't, I'll explain it briefly.
Sally plays with a ball. When she is done, she puts it in a little box, and leaves for school. While Sally is gone, Anne takes out the ball, plays with it, and puts it in the big box. When Sally comes home, where will she look for the ball?
Autistic people are more likely to say "the big box," forgetting that Sally would have no idea that Anne moved the ball. Non-autistic professionals would observe this from the outside and conclude "people With Autism have no idea that others have different thoughts from them."

It's a little more complicated than that.

For one thing, I'm autistic, and I passed the test easily. Cynthia Kim failed it twice, yet she writes articles explaining autism, so clearly she knows that not everyone shares her knowledge. The test isn't an all-encompassing indicator of how much we understand.

Almost all autistic people are aware of the fact that other people have different thoughts and knowledge. The tricky part is to figure out what those thoughts and knowledge are, exactly.

Autistic writer Kristen Lindsmith describes how difficult this skill is for her:

"Cognitive empathy can be learned. If I sit down and think about it, I can easily predict that a 35-year-old college professor knows what an “internet forum” is, or that the little boy I babysit who loves mobile games already knows what “Candy Crush” is.

But that takes time. In the moment, during the rapid back and forth of conversation, that level of intentional reasoning is far more difficult.

An autistic will often either speak entirely from her own perspective, leaving essential terms undefined, or she will default to explaining everything, even the details and backstory that her audience already knows and understands."

This is one of the reasons why I express myself better through writing than typing. When I don't have the time pressure of a conversation, I have more room to think about what to explain and not explain.

(This is not to deny the fact that some autistic people completely lack theory of mind. Julia Bascom had no concept of it until age 13. Autistic people are diverse, and there isn't one "right" way to be autistic.)

Empathy deficiency doesn't mean a deficiency in caring

I care a lot about other people.

Maybe too much? I surprise people.

People say they are hungry. Feeling hungry stinks. So immediately I offer them any food I might have on my person. They always say no. I don't know why they say no, or if that means it was socially inappropriate to offer food. Clearly they need the food more than I do.

I give people lots of things. When a golf cart driver had cold hands in the winter, I gave him my gloves for the rest of the day. (I knew I'd see him tomorrow, and I had other gloves at home.) He was going to be outside longer than I was, so it made sense. I give people candy when they are sad, because I can't usually fix the problem that is making them sad, but I can make them smile with candy. I give people sweaters, assuming the person is small enough to fit, and get them back later. I keep an extra pencil in case someone needs to borrow one.

If someone else has a need, it only makes sense to help if you can.

I help strangers as well as friends. Just because I don't know them personally doesn't mean that they aren't important, or that their needs are somehow less urgent. Apparently this is called "true empathy" and many non-autistics view it as coldness, although I have no idea why. Where is the sense in double standards? A stranger may not be important to me, but they are very important to someone else, and still deserve support.
"[An autistic] child will be loyal, and if your house is burning down, they're going to get you out of it." Dr. Temple Grandin
I don't like Grandin, since she's unkind to severely disabled people, but in this case, she makes a good point. I view other people's lives as just as important as my own, and my actions reflect that. I remember dreaming that a gunman was inside my college dorm, and he was going to find my roommate. Naturally, I tackled him. It was a no-brainer. When I told her about the dream, this surprised her.

(In real life, though, I would not run into a burning building. I've seen Big Hero 6 and I know that you have to stay away from the fire.)

In a life-or-death situation, your autistic character is likely to try to save everyone, including strangers. That boy trapped under the rubble is someone's son, someone's friend, someone's grandson. Logically speaking, he deserves to live just as much as your character's beloved sister.

When autistics feel more

Emotion and personal distress

Dr. Valerie Gaus describes a 2007 study that measured different types of empathy. Autistic adults in the study had trouble with cognitive parts of empathy (such as understanding someone else's perspective). We scored around the same as non-autistics in empathic concern (sympathy for others), and even higher in personal distress (being upset because someone else is upset).

What does that mean? Ooh, let's ask Cynthia Kim again!
"The only person I’m thinking about is myself and how uncomfortable I am. There I go again, taking my own perspective. My distress at the situation might outwardly appear to be empathic but my internal reaction is a great big “MAKE IT STOP, NOW.”
You know, I'm not sure if this describes me. I have a lot of worries about the people themselves. (But, hey, you are supposed to be getting perspectives from autistic people who are not me.)

I'm probably not as good at taking my own perspective as Cynthia Kim is. My brain is kind of a mystery to me sometimes, even after all my obsessive autism research. I suppose I'd say that when I think of someone else being upset, I feel upset. I feel compelled to fix it. So I try to. If I can't fix the problem that makes them unhappy, maybe I can at least cheer them up a little bit. I want them to be more happy because happiness is good for them.

I guess you could sum it up as "altruistic."

...And sometimes, this altruism and sadness-because-of-someone-else's-problem goes way beyond non-autistic standards.

Empathy for non-human beings

I think it's time for me to tell you the story of a tree. It makes me sad, so I'll indent it, and you can skip it if you don't like sad stories.
Once upon a time, there was a tree next to a construction area. It was no more than waist-high, and it was growing between a crack in a sidewalk. That was the problem: the tree was not going to survive there, and it might break the sidewalk before it died.
I emailed my retired-biology-teacher dad, and he confirmed it: the tree was doomed, and should be cut down before it caused any harm. So I gritted my teeth and packed a scissors before I went to class. Disability transportation golf carts picked me up. I talked a lot to the driver about how sad it was that it had to die. How it never had a real chance, and it was just so sad.
I seriously considered using an otter pop to bribe the driver into cutting the tree down for me, because it was just so tragic. But when I arrived at class, someone else had already cut it. They did an ugly job, severing the tiny trunk in two. I tried to make its final resting place look nicer by trimming it with my scissors, but it turned out that scissors were too weak for the job. So the splintered tiny tree stump remains.
Now I'm all sad, again. I feel really bad about the tree dying.

Some of you probably think that it is ridiculous to feel so sad about a dead tree. And you have a point. Trees do not have brains or nerve endings. They don't experience emotions or pain.

I have feelings about bugs, too. If I see a drowning bug, I will rescue it. (Once this turned scary because a wasp wouldn't get off of my finger.) I've gotten skilled at removing pieces of spiderweb from damselfly wings. When I was little, I'd prevent my parents from swatting flies. (I still don't like killing bugs. I prefer to catch and release. But I'll make an exception for mosquitoes, because they are evil, and killing them makes the world a better place.)

Autistic people's empathy is not limited to people. This can include animals, plants, and inanimate objects.

Overwhelming emotion

Sometimes, everything is too much.

When another person is harmed, it can be acutely distressing for an autistic person. Mother Lori D. describes how her son reacted after he accidentally spattered yogurt on Hardy, a friend with a severe milk allergy.
"[Tyoma] did not want to talk about the incident further, so I assumed all was well. Until, of course, he woke up with his first nightmare:
Mickey Mouse (his plush) and he were sailing on his bed in the ocean. Suddenly, Mickey began to choke and turn blue, red and then purple. Mickey swelled up and fell in the water. Worst of all—he tearfully told me—Mickey’s face changed emotion. Mickey went from happy to sad.
The next morning, he refused breakfast. He shook with clenched, white fists, begging to stay home...
Weeks later, the incident still resonates. Mickey Mouse has been consigned to the attic. The sight of yogurt tubes no longer upset Tyoma, but no amount of persuasion will get him to eat one. Yesterday, he jogged and jumped around the gross motor room, outlining plans to keep Hardy safe. “I don’t want to hurt a friend, ever,” he stated matter-of-factly."
Notice how Tyoma was quiet about the incident at first, and his emotions spilled out later. (The same thing happened when his cat died.) This is a familiar pattern to me.

I remember the last time my sister Katie was hospitalized with pneumonia. A few of you may recall drawing pictures for her in the art event. (Katie still talks about it.) I stayed busy collecting the kind comments for her, thanking the artists, and gathering more than 180 pictures in a format I could send her. I remember distracting my mom a lot. The house felt empty with Katie gone, and Dad staying with her.

I was busy. I don't recall having feelings about Katie being in the hospital. But I do remember that after she returned, I came down with a mysterious exhaustion-related illness, which lasted around 1 week. It flummoxed the doctors. Eventually, my dad floated the idea that it might have been stress.

When things are too much, sometimes my feelings superficially "turn off." I become emotionally numb and task-oriented, focusing only on what needs to be done. Maybe this is where the myth of autistics being robotic comes from. But the numbness doesn't last, and the emotions are still going to come out one way or another.

Sadness and Fear

You remember Cynthia Kim's "secretly-dead dogs" mentioned earlier in this resource. It's a poignant image, but I chose not to illustrate it, and go for something less eye-catching. By now, you can probably guess why: it might upset some of my autistic readers.

Caring so much about other people, fictional and real, can make it hard to see others' unhappiness. Mickey Mouse cartoons upset me when I was little, because Mickey gets hurt, and that's not funny. Sometimes I've been brought to tears by thinking of the plight of strangers. (In 2016, I'm deeply worried about if all the nice Muslims will be okay. The fact that I don't currently have Muslim friends makes no difference. I am scared and horrified on their behalf.)

Thinking about other people's physical/emotional pain can be acutely distressing to an autistic person, especially if that other person is in the room. Witnessing other people's unhappiness can be overwhelmingly horrible.

When other people are mad, autistic people may feel worried or terrified, even if the other people aren't mad at them.
Dan and his (soon to be ex?) girlfriend are screaming insults at each other at a backyard party.
Bob's thoughts: Ugh, how awful. I wish they'd take this argument somewhere private.
Carol's thoughts: Dan always goes on about his "crazy exes," but I'm pretty sure at least half of this is his fault.
Autistic Audrey's thoughts: Oh no oh no oh no. This is scary. I have to get out of here. Dan and his girlfriend are being mean to each other! I'm scared. This is so awful. The yard has a fence. I don't know if I'm allowed in the house. Tree! I can climb that tree and hide! This is scary! Why isn't anyone doing anything? I'm so scared!
This means that if some of your characters are arguing in the story, your autistic character(s) may be the ones most strongly affected by it.

Some autistic people run and hide if people are yelling, while others are better at hiding their fear. Some autistic people are not afraid of conflict at all. Consider your character's personality, and how they respond to other people's emotional turmoil.

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You didn't think I was going to leave you hanging, did you? (Okay you had good reason to think I would leave you hanging.)

Autistics: Share how empathy works with you, personally.
Anyone: Share a story of a positive experience you had with an autistic person. (If you need a positive experience with an autistic person, just comment and ask for one. I will find you a cool picture that reminds me of you! Fellow (non-)autistic readers, if you want to play the finding-people-awesome-pictures game too, feel free.)

This past few weeks have been hard on me, and I'm sure that they've been hard on many of you too. Let's have some positivity and smiles in the comments.
© 2016 - 2022 MissLunaRose
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SpongeBronyPH's avatar

This post applies to me. I have emotional problems too. But there are bright sides.

I never cry at most funerals. Good thing most of my relatives didn't think that I don't care.

I was brave at most horror movies and drama movies. Usually at film viewings at school.

MissLunaRose's avatar

I'm glad that your relatives understand when it comes to not crying at funerals. Everyone grieves differently. Some people have delayed reactions. Some cry in private. Some don't cry at all, but process their emotions in different ways.

I am the opposite. I'm not good at scary movies. In high school, I asked my dad not to sign the permission slips so I could sit in the hall and draw pictures during the scary stuff. Once they didn't ask for permission slips and I started crying in class because the battle scene had blood in it; luckily the teacher said I could sit outside after that.

Nayanagi's avatar
I like reading these posts, because I can discover things about myself in them :)

Some of the things I’ve done have made me appear to lack empathy, for example, showing an emotion at the “wrong” time.

I didn’t cry during one of my friend’s funerals (that earned me some shocked looks. I do miss him dearly, I just didn’t cry) but did cry because I got a low score on a math test
(I don’t even like math!)

I can show empathy, but I can’t always detect when or what I should say to someone in that sort of situation. Like you said in this post, I’ll feel bad for not having my stuffed animals on my bed (or for playing with one of my toy cars more than the other ones.)

In fact, I always make excuses to leave the room whenever I see some form of secondhand embarrassment, which is painful to watch. (A study says that people with high empathy levels react that way to secondhand embarrassment.)

Wait.. Temple Grandin doesn’t like low-functioning autistic people? But.. what?
I feel really conflicted now, because I’ve looked up to Temple Grandin for a long time, but now that I know she thinks like that,
I’m not sure if I should anymore..
MissLunaRose's avatar
I think it's most accurate to say that autistics experience empathy differently. There's cognitive vs. emotional empathy, and it's not uncommon for autistics to struggle with cognitive empathy while having a lot of emotional empathy. (If you haven't read Cynthia Kim's "The Empathy Conundrum" on Musings of an Aspie, you should, because it's fantastic.)

And there's also emotional overload, and numbness, which may be what you experienced at the funeral. I didn't cry at my grandma's funeral, even though I was sad, and I showed little emotion until I was taken to the casket, where I kind of freaked out. Dealing with grief can be complicated for autistics, I think. Well, it is for everyone, and everyone processes it differently. It's okay not to cry at funerals, because not everyone cries when sad, or maybe it hasn't really "hit" you at the time.

I once heard a story about a girl whose cat was hit by a car and killed. She didn't cry. The next day, she couldn't find the orange juice, and she burst into tears. Sometimes grief builds up, or comes delayed, and that's okay.

And Temple Grandin has said some aspie-exceptionalist type of stuff (like saying that "high-functioning" people are awesome while the "low-functioning" need cures). It is disappointing when a fave turns out to be problematic. You can still look up to parts of what she's done, while acknowledging that in other areas she is very wrong. Or, if you please, you can find new people to look up to too! I look up to Amy Sequenzia, Julia Bascom, Ari Ne'eman, Lydia X. Z. Brown, and Sparrow Jones, among others. (They're a lot more inclusive in their attitudes. So far they've all been pretty cool, and I like their essays.)

But I can't tell you who to (or not to) look up to! You get to decide that for yourself, because it's a personal thing and you get to exercise your own judgment and determine your comfort levels. :)
Nayanagi's avatar
I’ll check out the Musings of an Aspie posts because they sound interesting. I’ll probably still look up to parts of what Temple Grandin does, but learn about some of the people you suggested as well.
GreyRoseKit's avatar
I researched psychology for months to learn how to respond so I wouldn't stand out because I was so afraid of being bullied because everyone who has ASD who I know was, I was surprised with my results, I managed to make my way into a previous enemy's group and no one knows yet, when anyone talks about me having ASD I shut down mentally, what now?
I don't know how to show empathy properly to people outside my family, there is a girl in my college that bursts into floods of tears for no or little reason, and I am puzzled on how to show sympathy back.
RainstormCheetah's avatar
I didn't even know that half of the traits I identify with here were tied into my mild Aspergers. I just thought they were 'normal people' things, I didn't even realise that most people don't experience them.

I mean, not all of them apply to me, of course. Like you said, this sort of thing varies a lot from person to person; but the ones that I do recognise, I didn't really pick up on the fact that they were unusual. Just, looking through this now, I can see myself reflected in parts of it and, honestly, it's quite enlightening for me to see that other people don't experience them.

So... I know that wasn't your purpose behind writing this at all, but I feel like it's helped me understand... myself better? And also to maybe inform my perspective on writing non-autistic characters more, too. So yeah, thanks ^^ (I've looked through some of your other writing resources a while ago too, and they're all really interesting and useful ^^)
MissLunaRose's avatar
Learning about autism can really be surprising! I remember that suddenly a lot of my life made sense when it didn't before. And you don't always realize that your experience was different. It can be a really personal journey with a lot of discoveries. I'm honored that I've been able to help you in yours.

When my non-autistic dad reads things about autism, sometimes he relates to little bits and pieces, but not the whole picture. I'm sharing this in case it helps you understand non-autistics better. When I learned that, I kind of realized that everyone may have a few autistic traits, but non-autistics don't have them nearly in the same amount or degree that we do.
RainstormCheetah's avatar
Ah, that makes a lot of sense too, yeah. Again, thanks ^^
Tevo77777's avatar
I find that being on the spectrum is like the way my eyes are.

You see, I can see color and have very strong night vision, for for over a decade I would get some colors confused because they come in kinda weird.

I actually am a very empathetic person, it's just that sometimes signals get crossed on the way in or they get misplaced or misread. 
Lyrak's avatar

“I try hard to tell when I've upset someone else, but I get a lot of false positives that way.” SOMEONE SAID THE THING.

Now, I have learned a way around the subtle emotions thing to a degree by trying to apply past observations to present situations, but as noted in this piece (which honestly though geared for writers really is a good guide to understanding) it means you still get a lot of stuff wrong and often get false positives, especially on negative emotions (after you mess up stuff so many times you come to expect the negative more).

Also yeah I have a big problem with assuming stuff I know is common knowledge so I will sometimes start a conversation from a point that makes no sense to other people.

“ When other people are mad, autistic people may feel worried or terrified, even if the other people aren't mad at them. “ This is definitely a thing. If you’re even ranting about a topic out loud and your voice makes the angry sounds I will want to crawl in a hole and die even if I 100% agree with what you are saying. Normally my reaction is to stand there and go stoneface while my insides are simultaneously turning to ice and jelly and it’s a horrible horrible feeling. D:

Also I get really distressed if I am in the middle of a conversation and really need to get going either because of needing to be somewhere or simply because I have other things to do and want to do them. I do not know how to politely extract myself from a conversation without feeling like I am horrible and awful. I also get really really stressed if a sales person at a store is coming up to chat with me and I am either window shopping or find out I cannot afford what I came in to look at, like I am personally going to offend them. It's a mess. x.x

AnotherOddity's avatar
I have a cripplingly high sense of empathy. 
I constantly worry if what I have just said, am about to say, or am in the process of saying right now will hurt my friends feelings.
I just keep talking because I don't know what else to do. I often can't predict what will hurt somebody's feelings.
Sometimes I worry that I have already hurt their feelings and they are hating me in secret, even though I have no reason to suspect this.
And even though my close friends are people that are difficult to offend.

What I don't like about social situations is that neurotypical people often act like I should be born naturally knowing the rules of social convention and what is okay, when really, I don't. I've had people say 'You should know X. You shouldn't need to be told,' in shocked voices.
I feel like I'm being held accountable for being born not knowing how to circumnavigate the Arctic.

I have friends that understand me, and make me feel better about myself, though I still have these social insecurities.
MissLunaRose's avatar
Thank you for sharing! :huggle: I'm really glad that you have such understanding and kind friends. Having people who "get" you is really important in life.

"I feel like I'm being held accountable for being born not knowing how to circumnavigate the Arctic."

That is a brilliant analogy!
Tevo77777's avatar
I actually stopped caring if what I say offends people to a significant degree, because I had enough bad interactions that it's hard to care about peoples feelings.

People constantly don't care about how I feel, so I don't really want to return a favor never done for me.

The thing I think about, is that I don't really have anything against anyone, unless they already had it out for me. Most people are just people to me, and I think people are more lost, scared, or ignorant then hateful. 
This was an interesting and illuminating piece. Thank you.
Strange-Kitsune's avatar
I do not have any stories to share, but thank you for posting this.  It was a very informative read.
MissLunaRose's avatar
I'm glad to hear it! :hug:
minergirl778's avatar
I have aspurgers too! A lot of things in this are true for me, especially the part about having empathy for inanimate objects! Like how I feel bad for not sleeping with all my stuffed animals, and I always try to repair broken pencils I find on the ground (Glue on one half of the pencil, press the halves together, wipe the excess glue away, wrap tape around it and let dry) because I feel bad for them being discarded like that! But a lot of times instead of running away from a conflict I always try and break up the conflict, even if it's none of my business. Also on the subject of overwhelming emotion, A lot of times when I get really emotional, I like to express it by singing to myself or doodling on whatever paper I can find to get my feelings out onto a page, into the air, anywhere that isn't just in my head. But I do it in the wrong way when I get frustrated or confused, because I have a habit of crying when I can't figure something out or I get overwhelmed. It's really embarrassing! >n<
MissLunaRose's avatar
Thank you for sharing!

It's totally okay to cry when you're frustrated or overwhelmed. :huggle:
Tevo77777's avatar
OMG, I used to feel guilty about neglecting sheets, pillows, and stuffed animals too.

It was so weird.....
dekw's avatar
It's always interesting to read things like this!

I was diagnosed Asperger's at age six. At 23, it's pretty much impossible to tell if you're not already familiar with ASD habits (Heck, taking phone calls is part of my job now).  Aaaand in my ASD way, since my interest is piqued and I really don't care if I come off weird online (I AM weird, and I'm introverted enough that if I drive off 95% of people passively that's honestly fine by me) I'm just going to read through the journal and ramble away my running commentary to somebody I don't know at all, oblivious to signs of disinterest! Except, thanks to online interaction being nice, you can just stop reading, and it's one post so there's no signs I have to be super careful for.

Being eternally grateful for my upbringing and how it's affected me positively, it's always interesting to compare these sorts of things to how I've turned out as a high-functioning autistic -- my mother actually wrote a series of livejournal entries about raising me as a younger child (where the whole autism thing was a lot more pronounced, as in grade 1 Daniel spending his afternoons running around the back of the classroom shooting imaginary stormtroopers a lot. My grade 1 teacher was amazing), and they kind of show the sheer amount of thought and effort that my parents put into raising me. (On the off-chance you're interested:…, starting at the bottom -- she is a professional author, so she uh... writes very well. I write, too, but it's just a hobby). She also wrote a book with an autistic character in it! That was... influenced a lot by my school experience (I was well looked-out for by my classmates, thanks in great part to how wonderfully my grade 1 teacher handled me)

As such... I was never pressured to be normal, to fit in, or to care what people think if it doesn't directly affect me. And that has actually, years later, allowed me to generally fit in as I need without offending anyone. It's very tiring, though, because it *is* still a pretty long list of constant calculations and estimates. So, reading through this entry...

"They adapt by asking for lots of clarification." -- totally true. I always ask for lots of clarification, I always give it. I explain that it's because I am more dense than most bricks in this world -- it's not the other person's fault in any way, shape, or form. If you seem comfortable with your own flaws and it's very clear it's not others' faults, most people tend to actually be pretty comfortable with that stuff being in the open.

"Their anger radar will give false positives sometimes." -- This is one of those built exceptions. As I was able to comfortably watch and learn social interactions at my own pace, one of my first life lessons I noticed was almost completely universal was that People are Different. It became such a mantra that it's the default. Now, I have the other end of the ASD problem where I refuse to assume almost anything about emotions from expressions if I don't see the person more -- two smiles can mean completely different things between people. Some people get especially pleasant when they're postively enraged, even. When you start to cross cultures, your assumptions get even less steady.

Another thing is that I'm generally incredibly sarcastic. Why? My godfather, who I love and trust, and did at age 6, was always sarcastic. So... putting two and two together, little Daniel eventually learned that certain tones of voice tended to mean that "these words mean the opposite of what they say." And I admit: I sort of want to say that the previous statement was sarcastic, just for the fun of it (it wasn't).

Theory of Mind
Mine was just pretty lacking. I literally couldn't lie until around 11 or 12, because it just felt like such an obvious, inalienable thing to me that what I knew, everyone else did too. I eventually figured out that wasn't true, but... I'm sure you understand how much 12 years of familiarity is to an asperger's person -- I don't lie and hate lying, even though I technically have the capability (to do so very poorly).

Empathy is interesting to me. Sympathy, sure -- I can accept that something sucks for somebody and try to be there for them. Empathy is a very learned skill, and here's how I go about it (I overthink a lot, so:)

Sets of feelings are pretty similar across people. If you're completely livid, it feels and functions similarly as a feeling to somebody else being furious. However, what makes you angry and what makes Neurotypical Bob angry are two completely different things. To understand the feelings, what I have to do is: figure out what the person's feeling, and then I construct a situation in my mind. I say "okay, what if i were me but X made me feel Y", and imagine that feeling and reaction. With enough information, I can very thoroughly understand pretty much entirely how someone feels.

And, of course, sometimes, there's situations that are similar enough that I don't need to imagine a new situation. There is a reason I am headfirst into any situation where somebody's considering suicide.

Otherwise, I'm just letting the person give me cues on how to support, and more quietly being there.

"If someone else has a need, it only makes sense to help if you can." -- basically my entire philosophy. If it's in my space, around me, and within my influence, there is no reason that I should not try my best to help. Sometimes trying my best might mean sitting on worry or upset and doing nothing because the situation is sensitive, but damned if I don't think at the best route I can and try it. The world at large, I can't worry about -- it does nothing, and I don't have the energy. The world around me? Absolutely is to be helped as I can.

Overwhelming emotion
I am aware this may be TMI on the whole, but well, you know how high-functioning autistic focus is! It is nothing gross or disgusting, just personal stuff that I have no qualms sharing, but that you may not want to read if personal matters are distressing. Dark topics and all that -- I can't really turn my brain off and have no fear of the morbid, so that's what happens.

Let me just say that while I can still feel overstimulated from time to time... clinical depression is a fucking bitch. That, and the loss of energy thereof, has really kind of completely pushed out autism for any stake in being overwhelmed within my own mind. Yeah, often I find myself 30 minutes into dealing with people just wanting to go home to peace and quiet, but I would take it every single time over being home and starting to subconsciously count all the ways I could kill myself, along with (because I am compulsive and thorough in my ASD ways) all the statistics on researched fatality rates and which ways would be the least painful. I'll take it over losing all my remaining energy for nothing -- like, in general, it's easy to burn out, but I'll take overstimulation and struggling to keep working through it over depression taking away practically everything -- every single time.

That's not to say that would be the same for anyone else though, as I've come to realize I've gotten really good at dealing with any ASD-related difficulties in myself. Heck, I've taught kids much lower-functioning on the spectrum!

Part of it is that... I have no social reflex, as an aspie. I was not taught to care about things that are not relevant to me. So if somebody's angry... I have no base reaction except maybe be careful. I don't feel bad. I don't feel scared. If I take the bus to work and somebody were to spend 10 minutes insulting me, I'd probably laugh because it seems ridiculous -- and there would be no impact on my day.

When I was 8, my brother had ADEM (it's related to MS, it's a brain thing. He couldn't use his left side, we took him to the doctor, they went right to emergency room, and he was in the hospital for a while). He was fine (and thank god, he is the one person that I 100% could not handle losing, ever), but the entire experience feels like a nightmare. Literally -- my brain visualizes it in darker colors, with that faint feeling of something terrible predestined to happen with no proof. Remembering that time literally feels the same as recalling what happened in a nightmare before it really turned into a full-on disaster. My parents, as always, told me the exact truth -- mom knew my imagination would be worse than the truth. And it was true -- the moment I knew he was in the hospital, I was internally panicking because what if my brother was dying he is my baby brother etc etc

That reminds me, though: one of my aides (who was absolutely amazing) once asked my mom what she and dad did if I asked about autism. Mom said, almost confused: "we answer him."

There's a lot of things like this in her livejournal, and a lot of moments that highlight how lucky I am for the family I was born into.

"When things are too much, sometimes my feelings superficially "turn off.""

This is something I do on purpose, and wear around me. I can take angry people because... okay? I feel nothing. If somebody's trying to abuse me... have fun? If everything is going to hell? Well then things need to get done so it is absolutely not time for freaking out. The ability to partition and selectively discard external emotions, I think, is a strength of mine.

Sadness and Fear

I have no strong fears anymore short of one. I used to, but after spending a year planning to die, I kind of went through all my fears and either numbed them (I'd stand an inch from incoming subways to suppress the flinch reflex, lean over every tall edge to not care about vertigo, etc etc) or just turned them into that sadness (I just started telling myself every abstract fear was true and I was a failure). So... that just doesn't happen now. I get anxiety without the anxiety -- adrenaline that I have no mental attachment to, which I hate because it's IMMENSELY tiring.

Caring about other people, though, is huge. I am alive today because I knew I was loved in many ways, and I could not stomach the thought of what my death would do to those people -- even if I thought they'd be better off without me.

Because of that metric for empathy, I have an incredibly strong understanding of how things feel to those I am close to, and what causes them. Empathy is almost a replica of what I'm empathizing with, and that is sometimes overwhelming, although my first response to any overwhelming emotion is to stop and think.

The one fear is, relevant to that whole hurting others incident, making a mistake that somebody else has to pay for. If I get hurt, then it's in my hands to handle it. If somebody else gets hurt, it's out of my hands and they might react differently and it could be so much worse or them and it could be completely unforgivably harmful and entirely my fault. Because I know that people are different, I have no way of knowing if the mistake is a pain or is utterly unforgivable. And then because depression sucks, I still feel most of the way as bad after they tell me it's alright and they're okay.

I've definitely learned to shut off empathy in that sense. I care very little about anything beyond my control -- because logically, step by step, caring will make zero difference, so I shouldn't for my own sake. It took a while to put this through my brain, but I've managed, even if I worry it makes me a cold, sociopathic person.


There are ways in which I am far more competent with interpersonal interaction than neurotypical standards, because it turns out that deliberately watching everything gives you a lot to work with, even if it's exhausting. I'm a psych major, and I respond to the "what am I thinking" joke that people make about it with listing off what I've observed and making a guess. Last time, somebody asked, and I said:
"Well, you're probably thinking that's a relatively normal joke, so it's safe to make. I think you're a little nervous about that, because you generally come off in a geeky way -- you perk up at things that interest you, and contribute any knowledge you can, and you seem quite lively while doing that. But I'd guess you're a bit nervous about that because... well, I know it's the asian parents stereotype, but they probably emphasized Making a Good Impression and looking proper and whatnot, because your introduction was practically rehearsed -- solid handshake, good eye contact, introduce yourself in order... but that's now how you are, since you kind of just petered off after that."

He paused for a good moment, looked at me, and then laughed and said I was roughly right. Other people have been a little more disturbed. But hey, they ASKED...

I can pass for normal very easily. If you stay a little farther back, you're non-threatening, and if you respond with some good-natured surprise to what you miss, it seems like it's not a usual mistake AND you're harmless and mean well, letting you fit in with no major issues.

I can also fit in without passing for normal. I tell most people I have ASD... so that they know that if I DO NOT GET THE HINT EVEN THOUGH IT'S REALLY REALLY OBVIOUS, it's not their fault, and I'm not ignoring them. Since I'm not too loud, I stay back (I don't trust myself to read personal space boundaries -- it's funny, I'm a touchy-feely person (sensory preference!) but everyone assumes I'm the opposite because I'm always physically farther away than anyone else), and I am obviously comfortable with my flaws and not blaming it on them, people don't worry about it. My brother, who is on the spectrum but was PDD-NOS, is loud and rambly but is so utterly, non-maliciously himself that it's hard for anyone to take him in a bad way for more than a few minutes. He's impossible to offend and has literally zero malice, and just filters out anything that's stupid or malicious completely.

These are all skills I've learned. I find meeting new people exhausting, since I'm tracking numbers. He's smiled that way three times, and he's spoken like he was amused two out of those three, so it's trending towards that's his amused smile, and he thinks the idle jokes I made are funny. This guy is frowning, but he has shown no other emotion, so it really looks like that's just his resting face. This person looked angry at first, but now they're just panicking, and they look the same -- it's just that I caught their attention while they were panicking. And then as things change and I notice more, I have to revise all those estimates, too.

I have had a lot of trouble getting along with aspie communities for two reasons: one is that they all think "you're like me!" when I don't share many of their experiences thanks to my incredible luck in my upbringing. Two is... I really hate how they rail against "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" as labels, because as an aspie group, they are effectively just completely ignoring how many times worse a 'low-functioning' autistic has it. Yes, I get it, your life was difficult, but you can't just shed those sublabels and then think you're as poorly off as a grown, autistic adult, who can not speak and can't leave the house. It irritates me, so I've grown to avoid it.

Many aspies grown up are actually very judgmental in a sad way. They judge harshly because it was so hard for them to learn the "rules" of social interaction (they were pressured to be normal by parents afraid of their child being picked on, usually) that it's super unfair to them if somebody else bungles the rules and doesn't get punished like they feel they always did. I've seen a lot of this, and it's... saddening. I try my best to clarify/explain/help, but I'm a recluse, so I don't have much cause to meet these people.

Now, apologies for the wall of text, but also thank you very much for reading if you've somehow gotten this far! Things like this quite pique my interest. I'll... uh... probably get past the one common interest and look at other things, too! Somewhat later. If I haven't already driven you off with, um, a high word volume, to say the least.
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