There have been several theoretical attempts to explain what Autism is. One I find particularly disquieting and stigmatizing is Theory of Mind, or “mind-blindness”, which attempts to address the difficulties we face when socialising. It’s claimed that autistic individuals are unable to recognise that other people have thoughts which differ to their own; that the thoughts and feelings of others are somehow oblivious to us. This lends support to the idea that we are egocentric, uncaring and aloof, which in turn suggests that we don’t have empathy. For me this begs a question: how empathetic is it to suggest that someone lacks empathy? I contend that it’s not always useful to make sweeping statements about someone in this instance since it’s not always beneficial to project your thoughts onto others. This is especially true when understanding is inhibited by the way in which information is processed, i.e. interpreting language figuratively rather than literally, and vice versa.
How helpful is it to put everyone into neat little boxes?
Whilst it’s fair to suggest that some autistic people struggle with introspection – the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes – some of us, myself included, are able to identify our emotions as they arise and adapt our behaviour accordingly. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learnt to identify scenarios which are likely to cause me distress, which has helped me avoid most shutdowns/meltdowns. It has also enabled me to consider things from other people’s perspective – put myself into their metaphorical shoes – given enough time. If I’m talking to someone and they appear to be upset then I ask myself the following questions:
- How well do I know this person?
- Have I experienced what they are going through?
- How would I act if I was in that person’s position, and would that be deemed appropriate?
- If I was in that situation how would I wish to be treated?
- Are they seeking advice, or just a sympathetic ear? And
- How similar in outlook am I to this person?
From there, I would respond accordingly. This isn’t something I find easy, but I believe it’s a sense which is worth pursuing. After all, if I don’t make the effort to understand other people then I can’t reasonably expect them (to attempt) to comprehend my thoughts and feelings.
Admittedly, those who live with alexithymia and autism will find it difficult to relate to others’ state of mind, not to mention their own, but again I would argue that these people aren’t necessarily antipathetic; just that they struggle to process their emotions. Given this information, is it even empathetic to expect those people to be able to see our point of view? It would be difficult for me to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others if I had no concept of my own in the first instance. Can you actually understand what it feels like not be able to process emotion? I can’t.
Autism is a spectrum of conditions based upon neurological differences. Expecting us to understand you without taking this into consideration will lead to miscommunication. I feel that neurotypical (NT) people will have a greater chance of being understood if they can learn to communicate with us in a way which we understand. There are a couple of examples that I have experienced recently which illustrate this point.
Positive Misunderstandings – Noise at Work
A couple of weeks back I was sat in the office trying to draft a business plan for the project. It was something I was determined to get done, but at the same time I was finding it difficult: first because I lack the central coherence or “big picture thinking” to do these sorts of tasks well (I resolved this by breaking it down into small sections and working through them methodically); and second because I find it difficult to concentrate in the office.
In this example, the second issue is more prevalent. I’m hyper-sensitive to noise, heat, and touch, so the office is not an ideal place for me. What I find the most difficult is noise. Fingers tapping away on keyboards & clicking on mice, people talking, telephones ringing, mobile phone sound effects, and background music are all difficult for me to tune out. It gets to the point where I tend to hone in on these sounds at the expense of what I’m doing. When this happens I tend to become restless and my ability to attenuate a sense of torpid lethargy quickly diminishes.
I was in one of these mental states when an old Robbie Williams song was playing on the radio (I’m not a fan, so I don’t know the title). I jokingly mentioned in passing to my colleagues that I would be able to concentrate easier if it wasn’t for the music, not expecting anything to be done about it (I also asked them if they wanted to do the business plan for me, but I didn’t get any takers). To my surprise, they asked me why I didn’t say anything about it before turning the radio off. When I said that I didn’t want to annoy them, they told me not to be silly; that they weren’t adversely affected by not having it on. An additional reason for not asking them to turn the radio off is that I didn’t feel like I had a right to do so; I didn’t want to bother them for my benefit and was trying to be a team player. In this instance I was positively mistaken. In trying to take their feelings into account I negated my own, which in turn made it difficult for me to function. If I had been more forthright about the noise, then perhaps this scenario might have been avoided.
Negative Misunderstandings – Emails at Work
Unfortunately there have been times when misunderstandings have occurred which have affected – and continue to affect – me negatively. One such occasion happened whilst working at my other job last November, and I’m still trying to process it.
I had co-developed a training course, which needed to be co-delivered by myself and a colleague. I was reliant on them to run it; if it didn’t run, then I wouldn’t get paid. We had run the course previously on two separate occasions and it had gone well. The feedback was positive and my bosses were keen for us to run it again, so I was asked to find out about the colleague’s availability. I talked to the colleague about it and they said that they would talk to their manager before getting back to me. A month later I got an abstruse email from this person telling me that two of her colleagues had expressed an interest in running the course; that one of them lived in a particular location so the venue should be close to them. Then they asked for my thoughts. I didn’t understand where this had come from – it was a rapid and unexpected change to me – so I responded saying “No thanks”. I found the email to be quite flippant, almost as if the colleague was thinking on the page, so to speak, and that I’d be able to “join to the dots” (which is something autistic people struggle with). The fact that they didn’t provide all the dots to begin with didn’t help, however.
When I received no further response, I questioned myself whether I acted inappropriately. I sent the email chain to three of my colleagues and asked their opinion, having told them what I had expected (they were all NT and the same sex as the colleague). They told me that they thought the colleague’s email was confusing and that they wouldn’t know how to respond to it. At this point I was getting upset, so I decided to compose an email to explain my reasoning for responding how I did; I’d worked hard to develop a relationship with this person and I wanted some clarification as to whether they could run the course. Once I’d drafted the email I got it proof-read before sending it. I informed my manager of the distress this was causing me, and she emailed the colleague to explain my situation.
A week later I got a response saying that because of work commitments the colleague couldn’t do the course, although once again the email was needlessly verbose and quite defensive in tone; they overtly stated that they didn’t deliberately try to upset me. Having spent over one hundred hours preparing for this course, to have it taken away from me like that was shattering to my mental health. I was ok with the reasons they gave; I knew that they were incredibly busy and that they had personal issues to deal with. That said, the way they communicated it to me just wasn’t autism-friendly (ironic, given the colleague’s position). I exchanged two emails with them since, but haven’t spoken to them in nearly a year. I feel like I’ve misappropriated a lot of effort – socialising is still very difficult for me – for next to no reward.
As a result of this experience I feel less motivated to engage in future professional relationships with new colleagues. I’m not sure that this colleague took my point of view into account when communicating with me; it was done to their own time-scales and to meet their own wishes with little regard for the effort which I’d put into it. I’ve had many sleepless nights over this incident, repeatedly asking myself what I had done to deserve what I got, even though I can’t think of anything that I could have done differently. If there is a moral to this story then it’s this: if you have to deliver bad news to an autistic person, then please do it directly and coherently. We are capable of understanding your point of view, but there will be times where we can’t read your minds unless you explain yourself.