I’m an autistic woman in my 30s. I’m introverted and a little awkward, but I do like to meet new people and make new friends. However, I have this recurring experience in social settings that is a little off-putting.
When I am in a room with a group of people who are neurotypical (that is, people with “typically developing” brains), I am often told that I don’t fit their conception of what autism looks like.
I am told that I seem too intelligent or too “high-functioning.” I am too verbal. My eye contact is too good. More generally, I hear that I just don’t look like an autistic person.
People mean well by telling me this, but what I really hear during this kind of conversation is how misunderstood autism really is, and how much people don’t know about the variety inherent in the autism spectrum. I assure you, I am an autistic person (thank you very much), and being autistic is a huge part of my identity.
Autism describes a collection of neurological traits, not a “type” of person. Part of dismantling the stereotyped understanding of autism is talking about some of the myths about what autism isn’t, so we can get closer to better understanding what autism is.
One of the most pervasive myths about autism is that it is an empathy disorder. It used to be believed by many researchers that autistics naturally lacked empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is a base layer of human social interaction, and thus an important part of creating and maintaining friendships, romantic partnerships, parent-child bonds, and all person-to-person relationships.
It is true that many autistic people, myself included, do have trouble understanding the emotions of other people during social interactions. Psychologists used to attribute these social difficulties to a lack of empathy based on the idea of “theory of mind,” which is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and think through what they may be thinking of feeling. It was thought that autistic people lacked “theory of mind” completely.
Now, I don’t know about you, but most of the autistic people I know definitely have “theory of mind.” If my child is sitting next to a cup of spilled chocolate milk and crying, I can figure out what happened and how she feels about it. I don’t lack the ability to put myself in her shoes. And, I can feel badly that she’s lost her chocolate milk and want to help her feel better. I’m a mother; I’ve got empathy to spare.
So, it’s not that I and other autistics lack empathy. We have a similar range of empathy to neurotypical people. What we can lack though, as I said before, is the ability to consistently and accurately interact with people in social situations that rely on understanding how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, or what they’re expectations are from their facial expressions, body language, and nonverbal cues alone.
Autistic people often have trouble reading faces and understanding nonverbal cues, and do therefore often misunderstand people’s emotions, if those people don’t explicitly state them verbally. I am good enough at social situations (after many years of practice) that I can “pass” as neurotypical for a short time, but eventually I will miss an important nonverbal cue and be excluded from the social group, almost always without understanding why or what I missed.
If I’m not “out” about my autism, that same group of neurotypical people from before, who were so insistent that I don’t “look” autistic, will ostracize me in an instant, as soon as I miss a social cue or some other nonverbal communication, out of the assumption that I’m doing it on purpose.
Because of our trouble with nonverbal cues, autistic people also misjudge politeness norms and expectations pretty often, and can come off as rude when we don’t mean to. Many of us also can’t consistently pick up on cues to change topic or tone in conversation. It can be easy for a neurotypical person to dismiss these misjudgments as intentional rudeness or uncaring behavior.
From the outside, it can look like we autistics lack empathy. But in fact, most autistic people are either as empathetic as average people, or even more empathetic than average. We know we can’t fool you into thinking we’re neurotypical for long, even if we want to, but we want to be accepted just like everybody else. So, we often end up having higher social anxiety and thus a higher sensitivity to how people act. We have developed a higher level of empathy over time to try to help us compensate for our disabilities.
We know we don’t understand your social cues and we are working overtime to try to pick up what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling, so we can respond appropriately. We autistics are plenty empathetic. But are you?
If you’re a neurotypical person, think about the people you know who are just a little different in their communication styles than you. Do you know someone who talks for slightly too long, is occasionally rude and seems surprised when it’s pointed out, responds to your question a little too slowly, or doesn’t change topic when the rest of the group does?
Maybe they’re autistic; maybe not. But having a little patience and empathy toward them couldn’t hurt, right?