Part 5: My Personal Journey Through this Empathy Series6 min read

This thought exper­i­ment has been pro­found in helping me to under­stand some of the dif­fer­ences in neu­rotyp­ical and autistic empathy.

I knew already that the iden­tity of someone neu­rotyp­ical is social and emo­tional, whereas the iden­tity of an autistic person is expe­ri­en­tial and knowledge-based; how­ever, what that means and how it trans­lates in a given sit­u­a­tion is rarely so thor­oughly exam­ined.

The Series

To under­stand the con­text of this article, it’s nec­es­sary to read through the series.  I hope you will find it worth your time and that it is as illu­mi­nating and thought-provoking for you as it has been for me.

Part 1: The Nature of Empathy – A Case Study
Part 2: Empathy Case Study – Feedback
Part 3: Empathy & Philosophy – The Neurotypical Response
Part 4: Empathy & Philosophy — Different Perspectives

Where My Head Was

I tried, to what extent it was pos­sible, to not allow my per­sonal involve­ment in this series to inter­fere with feed­back and inter­pre­ta­tion.  As someone who is autistic, this is an issue inex­tri­cable from my iden­tity, and the inter­change in the case study was like most of the failed attempts at con­ver­sa­tion I’ve ever had… ever.  I say attempted because I usu­ally don’t get very far.

Social & Emotional Intelligence

I don’t have a hard time with under­standing when someone is frus­trated; in fact, I usu­ally spot it before anyone else does.  I can sense it like a change in the baro­metric pres­sure around me.  It’s vis­ceral.  I just don’t know why they are frus­trated, or I know why but think it’s a ridicu­lous reason to feel frus­tra­tion.

aspie memeUsually, I just feel defeated, because I’m not trying to be a bully or obnox­ious.  I make a self-effacing joke and change the sub­ject, or slink away if the topic isn’t too sub­stan­tial.  I just like to talk about what really mat­ters, and this has illu­mi­nated for me the depth of how dif­ferent my values and per­cep­tion are from my neu­rotyp­ical peers.

So, this socially self-destructive ten­dency to talk about the dif­fi­cult topics by diving head­long into them, the one in which we autis­tics feel com­pelled to engage, dis­qual­i­fies us from thriving in the social and emo­tional intel­li­gence arena without so much as a par­tic­i­pa­tion trophy.

Ply Them First

One piece of advice neu­rotyp­i­cals reported they would have given to Elise was that she should have first primed her mother for the dis­cus­sion by opening with reas­sur­ances and reminders that Linda was loved and respected.

I know this is a thing neu­rotyp­i­cals do, and I’ve never under­stood it. To me, it seems manip­u­la­tive, and I can’t under­stand why people need to be reminded of the obvious.

Here’s how it sounds, to me, when someone does this to me:

I know you’re emo­tion­ally inca­pable of hearing a basic fact without taking it per­son­ally and making it somehow about your char­acter.  I know that you are unstable, and if I don’t spread on this syrupy sweet­ness first, you will crumble under the weight of hearing my earth-shattering truth.


I am going to say some­thing insulting very soon, but I am wrap­ping it up in so many layers of point­less and insin­cere niceties that I can deny later what I said and make you seem like the aggressor if you get angry.

bare factAnd when neu­rotyp­ical people do this to me, I feel myself becoming angry.  I feel patron­ized and annoyed, like the person speaking to me believes that I am not intel­lec­tu­ally mature enough to talk about some­thing with depth.  I feel they believe I cannot take being coun­tered unless they walk on eggshells, like my ego is so large that I can’t handle being con­tra­dicted or con­fronted.

Ninety-nine per­cent of the time, I wonder why they were so cau­tious to begin with because there was absolutely nothing offen­sive in what they had to say; how­ever, I’m irri­tated before they even get to the point because I have been bracing myself for some pro­found injury to my char­acter.

What People Said Should Have Happened

According to most neu­rotyp­i­cals, Elise should have real­ized that Linda was never going to learn.  Some people never learn.  Elise shouldn’t have both­ered in the first place.  This broke me.  This was the big, illu­mi­nating, eye-opening reveal for me.

nothing happenedNeurotypicals thought Linda was brain­washed, but they faulted Elise for telling her mother that she was being manip­u­lated.  To them, it was better to main­tain the peace and be polite, and to just be con­tent in the belief that Linda would never realize she was invested in her own oppres­sion.

As an autistic, this is in direct con­flict with my neu­rology.  I just can’t with that.

I felt heart­broken to hear that people felt that it was more empa­thetic to regard another person, a woman explic­itly stated as “very intel­li­gent,” as a lost cause.  They pigeon­holed Elise as a know-it-all, grace­less bully and Linda as a hope­less sheep.

According to autis­tics, Linda wasn’t being fair in her inter­ac­tions and should have allowed her daughter to talk.  And, not sur­pris­ingly, I agree.  Anyone who believes false­hoods is in danger of con­tributing neg­a­tively to their own lives and to the lives of others.

Linda and her hus­band were approaching retire­ment age but had no money saved.

Detail-Oriented or Big Picture?

nobody caresTo me, it is nearly as wrong as murder to deceive people like Linda and her hus­band into sup­porting the eco­nomic poli­cies that landed them, and mil­lions of other working class Americans, in a ten­uous finan­cial sit­u­a­tion.  In fact, it is murder.  Economic oppres­sion is murder on a wide scale.  I can feel, vis­cer­ally, many of my readers rolling their eyes as they skim this sec­tion.  I’m accus­tomed it it.

I imagine that most people think that this boils down to a matter of pol­i­tics, a simple dif­fer­ence of opinion.  They might have felt that Elise was so focused on the detail that she couldn’t see the big pic­ture (the rela­tion­ship with her mother).  I would counter, though, that the bigger pic­ture is in the sys­tems that keep humanity from having access to a fair shot.

Did You Have to Go Political?

No, not really.  I could have chosen reli­gion.

ketoI needed a back­drop for the case study that rep­re­sented a socially-uncomfortable topic.  Of course, Linda would have been seen as abu­sive if she had said what she said to her daughter over quilting tech­niques or sports or baking or best style of purse for fall 2018.

But those topics don’t have the social con­se­quence of some­thing polit­ical, and most peo­ple’s iden­ti­ties are not threat­ened by their posi­tion on the First Lady’s dress and hair­style or the best way to order a New York strip steak.

Linda’s iden­tity (as a neu­rotyp­ical) is directly related to her posi­tion in the social cir­cles with which she iden­ti­fies.  Elise’s iden­tity (as an autistic) is directly related to her knowl­edge and her expe­ri­ence.  Linda has a lot to lose by chal­lenging the status quo of her social struc­tures… her safety and even her sense of self is tied to her “belonging” in these groups.  Elise, how­ever, is not moored to social con­ven­tions or the status quo.  Her iden­tity is grounded in her knowl­edge and how it applies in the con­text of the world around her.

I have a theory about why even those whose iden­tity was grounded in totally dif­ferent social con­structs (lib­eral, aca­d­emic, upper socioe­co­nomic class) still iden­ti­fied and empathized more with Linda (con­ser­v­a­tive, working class) than Elise.

More on that in part 6 of this series: Empathy & the Status Quo.

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  1. Interesting and helpful–and lucidly written, evincing a great deal of careful thinking. Thank you.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Frank, for this very thoughtful com­ment. You are per­cep­tive in layers and com­mu­ni­cate as such.

  2. I’ve found this series enthralling and dev­as­tating all at once. I don’t think I’ve ever con­nected so strongly with another per­son’s inter­pre­ta­tion of ‘my’ world in this kind of set­ting. Your 2 exam­ples of ‘ply them first’ and the way it makes you feel, is EXACTLY me. You express it to per­fec­tion in both exam­ples. I couldn’t begin to count the times I’ve felt so intensely patro­n­ised, and had a burning frus­tra­tion, some­times even esca­lating to terror, on hearing the pre-emptive ‘there’s some­thing really nasty I’m about to say’, only to dis­cover it’s a mere dif­fer­ence of opinion. They frame it as though they’re about to do some­thing unspeak­able, or the world’s about to end!
    I don’t want to take a defeatist atti­tude to my newly-discovered Aspie status, but it seems that our minds can never be lib­er­ated. I don’t need to be right but I do need to be informed, and I love to exchange views. Doing so as myself, seems to be an unat­tain­able fan­tasy, and impos­sibly incom­pat­ible with the main­stream NT social ‘rules’ 🙁

    1. Maybe it’s some­thing more sub­stan­tial than the posi­tion in a social circle. It could be that to a neu­rotyp­ical person, the mere fact that someone does not agree with them is just as unnerving as an unex­pected change in daily schedule can be to an autistic person. Both issues seem irra­tional to the other party, but both can be anx­iety pro­voking: the first causes a shift in a social envi­ron­ment and the second is a change to the phys­ical envi­ron­ment. Neurotypicals seem to be com­forted by knowing their posi­tion in a social realm as much as autists need pre­dictability in their phys­ical sur­round­ings. However, I have a feeling that I’ve over­sim­pli­fied the matter. It cannot be that simple?

      1. Author

        I think that you’ve really touched on some­thing quite pro­found, and some­times things are “that simple.” One of my favorite quotes is by Bohr: The oppo­site of a pro­found truth is another pro­found truth.

        When the human spirit is involved, the layers of com­plexity are infi­nite; how­ever, no matter how com­plex we are indi­vid­u­ally, we tend to follow fun­da­mental rules of nature almost as con­sis­tently as the theory of rel­a­tivity or the laws of ther­mo­dy­namics. Stay tuned! There are some arti­cles on the horizon which might explain this a little better. And wel­come to the Aspergian. Make your­self at home <3

  3. Aww, where’s part 6? That series was so inter­esting!

    1. Also, I didn’t realize this was an autistic thing.

      Seems like I have one more thing to the list of what makes me autis­tics!

  4. Based on my lim­ited expo­sure to them (this is not the result of a detailed or in-depth analysis), the writers of The Aspergian tend to lean left. I find this is often true of autistic people; I’m not sure why that is. I am autistic, and I do not lean left, but based on this case study I would much rather spend time with Elise than Linda. I wouldn’t learn any­thing from Linda, but I might from Elise (and I might be able to teach Elise some­thing, while I doubt Linda would listen).

    I have had a parent be manip­u­lated by Fox News. It was tiring, because the manip­u­la­tion was so trans­parent and bla­tant, and how could people watch that and not see it?

    At the same time, I think Elise made a mis­take that many on the left make. I think she pre­sup­posed why people do or should sup­port polit­ical or public policy deci­sions. I’m pre­dis­posed to like Elise because she read the pri­mary source, and then sought extra insight from sec­ondary sources. That level of dili­gence is rare. But that a piece of leg­is­la­tion will ben­efit me per­son­ally is a ter­rible reason to sup­port it. As the saying goes, “the gov­ern­ment that robs Peter to pay Paul can always count on the sup­port of Paul.” Political decision-making like that rewards pan­dering.

    Moreover, I gen­er­ally prefer the freedom to choose over the guar­antee of a pos­i­tive out­come. I would rather be left alone to fail than be helped and guar­an­teed suc­cess, because alone I got to choose, and the choice is what mat­ters to me.

    But the cool thing about Elise, in this case study, is that we could prob­ably have that dis­cus­sion in a calm and rea­son­able way. In the way that Elise couldn’t have that dis­cus­sion with Linda.

    1. Author

      Ian, thank you for your com­ments. I would have this con­ver­sa­tion with you any day, and you have truly *seen* the point of this article.

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