Those Unfeeling Autistics

Rachel at Journeys With Autism provides a brilliant analysis of how the tests that supposedly demonstrate low empathy in autistics are completely misguided:

Because the people writing the test are non-autistic, they have no idea of the methods that I use to work around the problem of being unable to read “normal” social cues. In instances in which I cannot intuitively tell when someone wants to enter a conversation, I tend to consciously look for people who aren’t able to get a word in edgewise, and I attempt to make room for them. In terms of perspective taking, this approach shows a significant level of cognitive empathy: I observe process, I see who is being excluded, and I identify with the experience of exclusion to such a degree that I attempt to ease the discomfort of other people. The fact that the authors of the test do not understand my adaptive mechanisms is quite problematic, because while my inability to tell when “normal” people want to enter a conversation would contribute to a low score, my adaptive mechanisms reflect a high level of cognitive empathy that the test does not pick up.

This is exactly how I act in social situations, too. I’m always extremely sensitive to people who experience discomfort in social situations and do all I can to ease it both on a verbal and on a non-verbal level. This is, partly, what makes me so popular with students. I can identify those of them who feel shy and uncomfortable and always try to help them by restraining those who attempt to hijack the discussion and push out the less socially adept of the group.

The idea that all NT people are a lot more empathetic while the autistics are much less so is wrong. Rachel points out that, as an autistic, she is a lot less likely to have an NT person adequately judge her responses:

For example, when I am in a store in which very loud music is playing, I have never had the experience of a non-autistic person being able to read my discomfort or note my awkwardness. Not once. Not ever. And yet, for me (and for a great many other autistic people), being in a store with very loud music is the hell-realm, and the question of whether to stay or go, whether to ask the store manager to turn down the music or not, whether to cry with frustration or put my fingers in my ears, places me in an extremely awkward position. My experience surpasses “normal” social awkwardness and “normal” social discomfort by several orders of magnitude, and yet non-autistic people fail to intuitively recognize that I’m having any kind of aversive experience at all.

Yet, we keep hearing that neurotypicals are so much better than we are at  “tuning in to how someone else feels rapidly and intuitively.”

I highly recommend this entire long essay because it does a fantastic job of exploring where these pernicious myths about autistics come from.

9 thoughts on “Those Unfeeling Autistics”

  1. These tests also, laughably, claim that not only are we un-empathetic, but that we’re unimaginative too. They base a large chunk of what makes a person autistic on the idea that autistics didn’t play pretend as children, and “prefer museums to plays” and “prefer reading nonfiction over fiction”.
    They not only misunderstand autism, but they also misunderstand supposedly “autistic” fields like science and maths, calling them “unimaginative”. Anyone who has ever hung around with theoretical physicists or mathematicians knows that their work requires tons of imagination and innovative, creative thinking.


  2. This “study” is bullshit, pardon my French 😀 I myself am an Aspie and I hate the idea that we don’t feel emotions or can’t empathize with people, like we’re robots *grr* I didn’t play pretend as a kid or read much fiction as a kid, the idea of myself having no imagination is laughable. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I have published several short novels and stories and poems on various forums and I’ve been told I’m not bad *rolls eyes* And science and math are not unimaginative, they indeed require a lot of thinking and imagination, if you’ve ever seen algebra equations or some scientific theories it’s easy to see that. The author of this so-called study has a severe case of cranial rectitiis 😉


  3. My spouse and I saw a play with an autistic character a few months ago. i cannot recall the title (my learning disability) but during the intermission we had a brief conversation with a woman seated beside us. She corrected me firmly at one point, saying that I must never say ‘an autistic person’ but always ‘a person with autism’ since the formar carries a stigma. To me this seems beyond silly. Should I call myself a person with maleness, for example?

    I am wondering whether you have an opinion on this that you would like to share.


    1. Oh for god’s sake. People and their tendency to foist victimisation on anyone when they’re not looking. What’s worse is that a lot of this enforced victim demography see this as part of claiming their identity, and embrace such ridiculous posturing. I’ve had similar experiences when referring to myself as brown and fat (“a charming woman of colour” and “curvaceous” are apparently what I should have said).


    2. Within the autism community, it’s generally considered preferable to be called “autistics”, because we don’t wish to divorce our personhood from our autism. After all, you don’t say “a person with femaleness” or “person with maleness” do you?
      I answer to any of them, or “aspie” or “autie”.
      Just don’t call me “Assburgers”.


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