Theory of mind. Empathy. Mind blindness. Compassion.
The amount of information out there on autism + the above is mind boggling, and so much of it is just infuriating.
“They” say that “we” don’t have empathy. “We” cry out, yes, we do, we just show our feelings differently so it doesn’t look like empathy!
“They” say we lack theory of mind, but there are countless examples… in books, on blogs, in my own life and, I hope, in yours, which show that people with autism are very aware of what goes on around them, and that often includes subtle social overtures from and between other people.
My argument, and not the major point of writing this, is that, just like typical people possess different degrees and hues and shades of empathy… so do people on the spectrum. I’ve seen far too many examples of “us” displaying incredibly empathy, such as when my friend at the Autism Society (ASA) conference checked to see if I would be okay if she ate in front of me, which could not have been a script because they don’t teach social stories on “What to do if your friend doesn’t eat food,” right?
But, between you and me (and the rest of the world that has ever met me), I’m not great with empathy. When I show it, it comes from a place of cognition and not one of feeling. The thinking comes first (“I wonder what so-and-so thought of such-and-such….”)… and the feeling follows. For typicals, I think that process is reversed.
As my friend and fellow Aspergirl, Jennifer O’Toole, explained in her presentation at ASA, some Aspies do struggle with empathy; but our compassion is fully in tact.
I always had trouble distinguishing between the two in a meaningful way, until I realized this: Empathy is “knowing.” Compassing is “doing” once you know.
So, say a friend has been more distant than usual. Chances of me picking up on the cues to figure out why that’s the case are pretty nil. Simple solution! I texted her, “Mad? Sad? Busy? Apathetic?” Anyone who knows me well will absolutely understand that I need to ask, or I will never respond remotely appropriately.
But, if you’re sad, or hurt, or if you encouragement? That’s where compassion comes in, and that’s where I actually do really well.
I’ve been reading Asperkids (Jennifer O’Toole), so social skills are in the forefront of my mind and I’ve been working really hard at them. I wanted to tell this story, even though it wasn’t one of my finer moments, because it’s a good example of how, even when I’m super conscious of this stuff, it’s unnatural for me and I still mess up.
I wanted to change plans for the next day. I called my mom, and when she didn’t answer, I texted her, then before I went to bed I tried again. I woke up the next morning and called.. did she hear that I do not want to spend the day outside, that I needed to stay home and get work done? No, she didn’t, and in order to save her a lot of extra driving around, she decided she’d get me today (Sunday) instead.
I have a little sleep issue, in that I’ve been sleeping 16-18 hours a day. Can I just say how annoying it is that I can’t wake up for anything? I have things I need to do! Anyway, my mom told me around 8 last night that she would get me around 8 AM.
I was not happy, because that didn’t leave me nearly enough warning to go to bed so that I wasn’t a major grump today. My mom told me to see if my dad could get me later in the day, and I said, “No, Mom, that’s not fair. You messed up the weekend and it’s not my dad’s job to pick up the pieces.”
Now, okay, in my mind, that statement meant, “You messed up my sleep schedule this weekend and I feel uncomfortable asking my dad to jump in on something that should stay between us.”
Totally not how that came out. My mom, when she got me this morning, said that my words had really hurt her and that if she was hurt, then they must have been pretty harsh. I apologized, and, Aspie-me, “That’s not what I meant though!”
In my mind, they weren’t really hurtful.
“But that’s what you said, and you’re going to piss people off if you don’t learn to hear your words for how they sound and not what they sound like in your head.”
Oh. Yeah. Sigh.
Learning to view yourself as you appear to others is a really, really difficult thing… it’s like seeing photos of yourself in a bathing suit, right? Owning your own “stuff,” something I’ve been working really hard to do the last few months, reminds me of that 360 mirror on What Not to Wear. It’s brutal.
It’s also important for growing into the people we want to be, and that doesn’t stop when we turn 21. For Aspies, it’s something that has to be explicitly taught, but it has to be done so, incredibly carefully, because we’re so sensitive and hard on ourselves. In the past, when someone pointed out something that was less-than-flattering about me, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die, almost literally. Trying to address these issues with a person who isn’t ready? I’d go so far as to say it’s harmful. The person will get defensive, more so every time, until the very thought of a slight correction makes them shut down.
Ask me how I know.
I think the best way to work with “us” on this stuff is to model. Yes, that means modeling when you make mistakes and screw the heck up, which is probably not your first inclination. Jennifer’s book is a great way to indirectly teach Aspie kids (and adults!) all those things that they don’t want to hear from you. When it’s Aspie-to-Aspie, and when no one’s there to make you feel that deep sense of shame for having done things so wrong for so long, it’s a lot easier to hear the message. My third suggestion is mentoring, which I think it’s hugely-incredibly, maybe-the-most-important for every person on the spectrum. Autistic kids need autistic mentors; autistic adults need autistic mentors! If a fifth-grader can show a first-grade the way around his new school, and an eighth-grader can show the fifth-grader how to do her hair, and a senior can show an eighth-grader how to get into after-school clubs… it’s such an important cycle. The issues of “what-not-to-do” come up in these relationships, because rather than “typical people don’t do that” (which is what I always heard when my family and friends corrected me, no matter how they said it), I hear, “Hey, kid, I totally went through that and this is what I learned.”
So, there you have it. Connection is the answer to the disconnect.