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.
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.
Usually, 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.
And 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.
Neurotypicals 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?
To 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.
I 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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Interesting and helpful–and lucidly written, evincing a great deal of careful thinking. Thank you.
Thank you, Frank, for this very thoughtful comment. You are perceptive in layers and communicate as such.
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’ 🙁
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?
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
Aww, where’s part 6? That series was so interesting!
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!
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.
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.