Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – #Autistic December 6/31

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – #Autistic December 6/31

It’s hard to describe an experience to somebody who has little to compare it against. What would it be like to sense magnetic fields, or see the polarisation of light? How would it feel to be a cat?

You might speculate but there is no way to know. All you can do is imagine, drawing parallels with things you’ve seen or felt yourself. And it’s the same when somebody neurotypical tries to understand the experience of being autistic.

The same applies going the other way, of course. An autistic person like myself can never experience being neurotypical either. There’s even a name for this: the Double Empathy problem.

The thing is, while most of us autistics are all too aware that we experience the world differently to neurotypicals and that neurotypical assumptions about us can sometimes be wildly inaccurate, few neurotypicals have the equivalent insight.

This leads to misinterpretation of autistic behaviour when it’s viewed through that neurotypical lens. When all you see of something is what’s on the outside, you have to guess what’s going on inside based on what you’re familiar with. In this case, assuming that the causes or triggers are the same for autistics as for NTs.

We autistics are a minority neurotype. The consequence of this is that while we encounter NTs frequently, they don’t meet us nearly as often and don’t have the same opportunity to become familiar with our differences. We aren’t well understood, and that can lead to fear.

Filling that gap in understanding is so important, but there’s a communication barrier. How can we describe our internal experience in a way that neurotypical people can relate to without making it seem like a minor variation? That’s how we end up with misunderstandings like, “We’re all a bit autistic.”

I don’t have the answer. I don’t even know if there is an answer but I keep searching. There certainly is such a thing as an autistic experience because so many of us can relate to each other in ways that don’t happen between us and neurotypical people.

I’m autistic: I know how that feels. I can describe how it feels in ways that other autistics can relate to, but there’s always a frustrating gap in understanding with a neurotypical audience. The shorthand that works fine with others who share my neurotype loses meaning with those who have a different neurology.

My belief is that science alone–psychology, neuroscience and so on–probably won’t arrive at an answer any time soon. It’s going to require fresh approaches that break down the traditional barriers between disciplines to approach it from new directions.

Because communication lies at the heart of the problem it will undoubtedly need to involve those who specialise in those fields. Not just linguistics but all manner of communication: the domain of artists.

An over-reliance on words and repetition of established patterns makes new directions and new shapes of thought much more difficult: a poet or painter can capture and convey the feeling of an experience in a transcendent way.

Think of a simple experience: perhaps eating a chocolate. While the mechanics are important–body heat melting it, the action of chewing and swallowing, the workings of the taste buds and digestive system–they don’t tell you how it feels. There’s a whole level of description missing.

Bridging the communication gap will take a combined effort, a multi-disciplinary effort. New thinking is needed to break out from the confining paradigms we find ourselves with right now.

What Is Empathy?

What Is Empathy?

Empathy. Everyone knows what it is, right? It’s that sixth sense, a kind of ESP that picks up the vibes of what somebody else is feeling. Except that telepathy doesn’t exist, and given the lack of Betazoids on Earth there is nobody who can genuinely “hear” emotions broadcast by your brain.

So what is empathy and how does it work? It turns out that it’s based on observation. Minutiae of expression–body language–signal emotions at a subconscious level.

Humans being social animals, we have evolved to be sensitive to these signals from others around us. They provide hints for how we should approach others, how we should adapt our behavior to their moods so that they will be more receptive to our interactions.

But since we cannot actually read the thoughts of another, cannot infallibly know what they are thinking, we rely on projecting what we can observe onto our own psyche. We predict their responses based on what we ourselves would do in their situation.

There’s an elephant in the room of this analysis of empathy: it relies completely on an assumed similarity of thought. To be able to mirror the thought processes and mind state of another person requires a certain degree of equivalence of culture, environment and neurology.

Among the mostly homogeneous communities around the world this works well enough for the majority of people that they take its universal applicability for granted. But that is not the case.

Those of us who have a different neurology, or were raised in different culture, think differently. When we try to imagine another’s thoughts we predict them based on our own minds. We use the knowledge we have gained through our own experiences.

But, when those experiences are sufficiently different from those of the person whose mind we are trying to model we find that the conclusions we reach are different from those that they would arrive at.

The converse is also true: neurotypical people are equally bad at imagining what autistic people (and also people from different cultures) are thinking and feeling.

Empathy is not some magical ability. It is nothing more than considering the question, “What would I do/feel in their situation?” It’s simply a forecast based on what we can see of them.

For accuracy forecasting relies on both knowledge of the initial conditions (what we observe of their situation and mood) and an accurate model of their behavior (how they think). It is this second part that explains the disconnect for autistic people.

We simply do not think in the same way. We respond differently to the same stimuli. And so when we try to imagine their thoughts we imagine them responding as we would. And that is different to how they would respond.

The result is that we are assumed not to have any significant capacity for empathy, for putting ourselves in the place of others. But my view is that the very definition of empathy means the odds are stacked against us even before we begin.

Responsible Freedom

Responsible Freedom

I’m a great believer in freedom of speech, and not just in the sense of vocalization: I include all forms of self expression. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

This right, like all other rights, comes with an unspoken duty: the duty to ensure to the best of my ability that anything I do express does not harm others. That it does not curtail the right of those others to live free from fear, oppression and abuse.

That is where my own sense of morality comes into play. I must judge for myself whether my words and actions are appropriate and in alignment with what I believe to be right. I must put myself in the position of those people affected by what I say and do, using my sense of empathy to imagine how they might feel.

I have a very strong aversion to conflict and confrontation, and I’m sure this plays a role in shaping my behavior towards others. But there is also compassion which causes me to feel hurt by others’ pain and anguish. This suggests there might well be a degree of self-interest involved in what I refer to as my morality, but I’d argue that this is no bad thing. It gives me an honesty of purpose to understand my own motivations rather than simply label my behavior as intangible belief.

Freedom as a concept is both shockingly simple and overwhelmingly complex. Simple in that it may be expressed in very few words and applies equally to all. Complex in the effects and ramifications of that simplicity. Freedom is not a license to do whatever you want. It is a contract between an individual and the society she lives in, a tacit acceptance of a framework of rights and responsibilities.

I believe any society, any situation involving two or more people living together, requires some set of rules governing behavior. I’m not necessarily referring to formal laws and such like. But complete, unfettered individual freedom inevitably conflicts with the well-being of the group as a whole. If one member of a group hoards all the food then it hurts all the rest, so a rule gets developed for fair distribution of resources. Those who don’t conform, who don’t live within the societal restrictions on their individual freedoms, are cast out of the group. What in former times were called “outlaws”: those who are outside the the set of rules and protections offered by the group.

Some use the idea of individual freedom to justify bullying and oppression: if I’m stronger than you and physically able to take from you then I’m free to do so. I want your land so I’ll force you out and take it. Freedom becomes associated with strength and aggression, with a lack of restraint.

Human rights are not the same as freedom. Accepting universal rights requires accepting restrictions on individual freedom, accepting that some actions are not acceptable behavior since they deny those same rights to others. It’s not about strength but empathy, compassion and respect.