Debunking the dangerous ‘lack of empathy’ stereotype.

Debunking the dangerous ‘lack of empathy’ stereotype.

On most desktop computers, there are separate switches for the tower (the actual computer, the bit that ‘thinks’) and the monitor where output is displayed. If you turn on your computer, but not the monitor, the computer can do all the work it likes–but nothing will be displayed.

I often compare computers to the autistic brain; I find there are a lot of similarities. This is one. It’s a gross over-simplification but it goes a long way to explain how autistic people are so often accused of being void of empathy. So much so that the cold and unfeeling autistic person has become something of a stereotype.

Autistic people are very capable of empathy. Our ability to display that feeling is impaired. Our computers are functioning, but often times the monitor is switched ‘off’… or on another channel completely (and trust me to switch to a television comparison now just to confuse the issue).

For me, it’s a case of the monitor being off most times. I have to remember to change the position of my face to reflect the appropriate feeling for the moment. It doesn’t come naturally. It’s a logic-based process that says, ‘You’re feeling happy now, you should be smiling!’ and so I turn the corners of my mouth upward.

Manual smiling can get painful, by the way.

There are times where my feelings are so strong and I’m so caught up in them that the expressions form themselves–but that’s rare.

I’m also chronic for the pseudo-condition ‘resting bitch face’, which is the tendency to look worried/tired/angry. This is just the way my face falls when I’m not giving it direction, and it doesn’t mean I feel the way it looks. Usually I’m so deep in thought that I’ve relinquished all active control of my facial expression. I could be having a hilarious daydream, but to the outside world it looks like someone’s upset my apple cart and I’m about to tear strips off the next person who bothers me.

For others, it’s less a case of the monitor being off and more a case of it being on the wrong channel. They may exhibit expressions and behaviour that make little to no sense in context with the situation around them. This could be misinterpretation of the situation, not knowing how to react in a situation (and giving it a best guess), or it could be as simple as the mind reaching a different emotional reaction to that which is normally expected.

I watch a lot of true crime specials, and the way people read each other after a homicide is troubling to me. So much that I hope I’m never directly involved in such a situation because (aside from the obvious) I worry that my lack of reaction, or incorrect reactions, would be misinterpreted as possible guilt.

If you think that’s paranoid and crazy, check out the Amanda Knox special on Netflix.

She’s not alone in being suspected because of her reactions. Lindy Chamberlain is another high profile case that utilised her behaviour after the death of Azaria and throughout the trial process as a sign of guilt.

I don’t pretend to know what happened to Azaria Chamberlain, nor am I convinced of Lindy Chamberlain’s guilt or innocence. I’m certainly not claiming that Chamberlain and Knox are autistic, either, only that their lives have both been upturned in part because they did not react the way they were expected to.

And there lies a very dangerous expectation, for everyone, and especially for  those on the autism spectrum. The expectation that every person will react to a situation in a similar way, and that deviations from that expected behaviour are wrong.

Greater understanding that there are infinite ways to respond to a situation, and that each person will respond in their own individual way, will set free so many from fear of their own personality. Clinging to ‘sameness’ is a human desire that continues to fuel fear and hate, between races, religions, nations, anyone of difference.

We are so much more diverse than social expectations allow.

In regard to empathy, we all feel it. We all respond to it differently, we all show it differently. Some are able to disregard it. Others are slave to it.

The notion that autistic people are not capable of empathy is a myth. It’s far more common that the autistic person is less capable of displaying it.

In some cases, myself included, the feelings of others are present in the air. Like a solid, electrifying force that grows with the intensity of feeling. I know the feelings are there, I know there is an emotion being communicated, and I feel it so keenly that it burns.

But I don’t understand it. I don’t have the ability to take that force, break it down into its parts and know that what you are sending me is happiness, or anger, or fear. It’s another language, one  I can’t interpret, and the force of it leaves me paralysed and unable to act.

My own feelings, I have so many of. I feel deep sorrow, and boundless joy. I don’t always know what to call them, nor do I always know how to deal with them. They lie behind a face that moves as I tell it to, but they are still there.

I repeat. They are still there.

And what to do about it? I don’t know. I like to know when my behaviour isn’t what’s expected, and perhaps this comes from a place of wanting to fit in, to be seen as ‘normal’ among others. But isn’t that just as damaging?

After all, if I put on a successful mask, learn to behave as others do–if we all conform to this expectation–how will any of us learn to embrace and understand the true diversity of the human mind?

Some things, I will change. Some things I won’t. My reactions, expressions and the way I approach the world is my own. Even if that is to have no visible reaction, that’s simply how I am. I cannot be judged from the outside. Knowing me requires conversation, patience, and a mind open to the idea that not all body language speaks truth.

I have feelings as much as any other person, autistic or not. It just takes some digging to see them.

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