More Than a Feeling?

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer.

It’s been a hell of a week. And just like last time, the most interesting things going on are external to me. Does this mean I am becoming less introspective, and perhaps more comfortable with myself? Or does it just mean that something like Donald Trump being voted out after one term is such huge news that I have to open my shutters and look outside? This blog is not really a place to talk about politics, so I’ll just say the news from the USA made me happy, and we’ll leave it at that.

Then, the football club I follow, Sheffield Wednesday FC, sacked their underperforming manager, and appointed Tony Pulis. Some call him a footballing dinosaur. I say give the guy a chance.

The pandemic continues to control the lives of everyone. People close to me are standing up bravely against the negative impact on mental health caused by the lockdown. I firmly believe the lockdown is necessary to save lives, and I think most people agree. But that doesn’t mean we can just ignore the negative aspects of having our usual freedoms curtailed. But we should also remember that just because there are many negatives resulting from lockdown, that doesn’t make lockdown bad or the wrong thing to do. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the greater good. Is that easy for everyone? Of course not. The human race needs to have a plan for what to do when the virus comes under control, and we have to start getting the world back to normal. That is going to require a step change in how we recognise and deal with mental health issues, and in how we protect and help people who have been financially ruined as a result of the pandemic. We need a new kind of ethical capitalism… but I’m in danger of drifting into politics again, so moving on…

The good news on the pandemic front is the announcement of a possible vaccine that protects up to 90% of people from infection. The subject of vaccines is obviously close to the heart of anyone interested in autism. The legacy of Andrew Wakefield’s evil claims that vaccines cause autism is now ingrained in the public consciousness in the sense of a general distrust. People forget the huge strides made in pubic health by vaccines for polio and measles, to name just two. Countless lives have been saved by these. The Covid-19 vaccine that has hit the news headlines this week comes from Pfizer. Now, I’m not one of those people who automatically assumes big pharma is bad, but on the other hand, I do not automatically put all my trust in companies like Pfizer, who have something of a chequered history in terms of pharmaceutical ethics. In other words; I am just cautiously optimistic about the vaccine. I would want to be sure the work leading up to it was checked out by independent experts – and I mean really independent experts. But once that hurdle is cleared, I would happily be first in the queue to take the vaccine. One concern some people have is that the vaccine has been arrived at in a matter of months, when this kind of work normally takes years. This worry seems to have the implicit fear that safety protocols might not have been adhered to. I understand where that fear comes from, but it is somewhat a product of the Wakefield effect. Science can do amazing things when the pressure is really on. I would hate to think that people die completely unnecessarily when a vaccine is available, because people just don’t trust it, even when all the evidence points to it being safe. The measles outbreaks that resulted from the Wakefield scandal were horrific, so let’s be sensible about vaccines this time round.

In this week’s blog:

Aberrations: An update on my novel-in-progress.

The Aut Life: A quick look at how I’m doing at managing my mental health, and how I’m coming to terms with knowing I am autistic.

The Aut Files: Thoughts on relationships, social difficulties, and most of all… empathy.


Aberrations

A mixed week on the writing front. The novel is still progressing well, and I still feel delighted that I’m back into it, and enjoying it, after spending so long in despair thinking I would never be able to write again. I missed one night of writing this week due to, I think, mental weariness. But then I was back on it 24 hours later. I’ve produced 4,276 words over the last several days, but that doesn’t really tell you what happened. Last night night I started chapter 47. This chapter had been looming ahead of me, because I knew from my plan that the narrative had to take something of a sharp left turn here. Something significant changes in the focus of the narrative, and I wasn’t sure how to go about it. In the end, I opted for a different, and highly stylised, narrative technique. I was uncomfortable with it from the start, and by the time I finished my writing session, I knew it wasn’t working. It’s not that the writing isn’t good enough; it’s on a par with most first-draft efforts; it needs work. It’s the technique I went with that’s the problem – it’s not going to work. I’m going to have to go back and start again with this chapter. I need to find a way of making it feel qualitatively different to everything that has come before, but it still has to feel like part of the same book! I’m really going to have to give this some thought. I’ll let you know how I get on. This finishing post for the first draft is in sight now, and I have to be careful not to get carried away and rush the work. This is still a marathon, and there will be no “dipping for the line”.


The Aut Life

The biggest problem I have with my mental health right now is dealing with sudden short bursts of anxiety. My ongoing depression has eased somewhat. Although I have to make it clear that when I say my depression has eased, that just means I am no longer in a deep, dark pit of constant despair that leaves me questioning everything. My current state is far less severe than it has been, but I think that most people, if they spent some time in my mental shoes, would probably find my current level of depression pretty harrowing. But I’ve lived with this all my life, and the measures I now take to manage my mood help; reading, writing, walking – the magical three. But the bursts of anxiety are troubling. They often leave me feeling a seething undercurrent of anger and frustration. It is pretty much always springing from being an autistic person in a neurotypical world. I understand that this causality cannot change: I will always be autistic, and I will always live in a neurotypical world. So if I can’t remove the cause, I have to manage the effect; the anxiety itself. It’s still early days with the meds, so it’s a work in progress.


The Aut Files: Empathy

Among the common preconceptions about autistic people are these three:

  1. Autistic people have social difficulties.
  2. Autistic people struggle with relationships.
  3. Autistic people lack empathy.

When I talk to other autistic people, and visit online discussions between autistic people, I find that most of them just accept that social difficulties are part of their lot. Many tend to be good natured about it, and you can often find autistic people posting self-deprecating, humorous memes about the subject, such as this one I stumbled across on Redditt:

The problem of struggles with relationships is slightly different. Anecdotally, it does seem that many autistic people suffer this way. Obviously, relationships are inextricably linked with social difficulties. Friendships and professional relationships can be fraught with problems for autistic people if we just can’t get what feel like strangely obscure and political nuances of interactions. Conversations between autistic people about these issues often include a lot of Does anyone else always feel like… questions, and requests for, or offers of, advice. Again, we accept there are problems for us here in navigating the neurotypical world. But many autistic people do engage in relationships, often successfully. However, some choose to opt out of the difficulties, and become more reclusive, and are happy with that. Some autistic people however, often feel isolated and lonely. And it’s not as simple as people being always in one category, as it might seem I have described above. There is mix, change, and overlap. I have always had huge difficulties with all types of relationships throughout my life. But I did stay in a relationship long enough to have a son, who is now grown up, and we are very close. I have been married for 13 years, and I love my wife dearly. But I also have a string of failed relationships, friendships, and professional associations behind me. I’d say most if not all autistic people would recognise they have difficulties with relationships. Or, let’s say that like having social difficulties, it is not a particularly controversial subject.

But then we come to empathy, or the lack of. This seems to be a hugely divisive issue among autistic people. While I have read online posts from some people who say they have difficulties empathising, many others claim they empathise just fine, thank you.

In a way, this is to be expected. Autism is, of course, a spectrum. We are all different. So maybe a lack of ability to empathise is something that does not affect all autistic people, and even when it is present, it is not at the same level of severity in all people. This seems so reasonable that it should be obvious. But for me, the really fascinating thing here is this: How much of a part does a lack of empathy play in social and relationship difficulties?

I am not a mental health professional. I am not employed as a professional researcher into autism. In no way am I an expert in autism. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I am just an autistic person, diagnosed late in life, who is coming to terms with it, and who wants to inform as he learns. I cannot claim to speak for all autistic people on the subjects of empathy and relationships. But my experiences since diagnosis lead me to believe that many autistic people will identify with what I have to say, and I do think this is a subject worth talking about.

I have mentioned that I have had problems maintaining relationships in the past, particularly friendships, romantic relationships, and family relationships. Let me be painfully honest. I have made a decision to completely cut some family members out of my life. I feel I was justified in this decision. There are other, extended family members who are out of my life not because I have cut them off, but because I don’t know them. Some of them seem to know me, I’ve discovered on social media, but I could walk past them on the street and not recognise them or know their names; uncles, cousins, etc.

A few years ago, I made a decision to cut a whole circle of friends from my life. These were a group of guys with whom I shared a nerdy interest (TTRPGs). The shared interest in gaming led to socialising in pubs, and we were friends for more than twenty years. During that time, when I had no idea I was autistic, and I was in denial about my erratic behaviour, they learned to put up with me, I guess. But when I started trying to improve and educate myself, something changed in the group dynamic, driven by one individual who I suspect may be borderline psychopathic. It resulted in a hurtful online conversation about me that left me feeling betrayed by people I had like and trusted, and who I thought had liked me. I have not spoken to any of them in the years since. A couple of people from that circle have died since then, and I felt nothing. I have no compulsion to get in touch with anyone left in that circle. What this has meant is I no longer have a circle of friends I can just call and meet up with ad hoc. I expected this would make me lonely, but it hasn’t. I find socialising hugely difficult, and the only way I got through it as a younger man was by consuming large quantities of alcohol, and telling myself this must be what having a good time feels like.

I have lost some other friends simply because I have drifted away from them. There is no animosity or betrayal involved, just a drifting apart.

Looking at my history of friendships and family relationships I see two things:

  1. I can easily cut off anyone who crosses a line with me, and never look back. I do not miss these people, and I simply don’t care what happens to them. There is no hatred or malice involved; I simply have no interest in them any more.
  2. I am mystified by the processes used by neurotypicals to maintain long-term relationships with people who they are not seeing on a daily or weekly basis. Some neurotypicals seem to have this thing where they can go ages without seeing or talking to an old friend, and then they suddenly pick up where they left off. When my friends drift away, the tend to stay away. Social media has helped me keep in touch with some people I like, although these are purely online relationships. I’m comfortable with that, and some of these online relationships are very genuine and warm. But the IRL stuff baffles me.

This ability I have to completely cut people off puzzles me, because I know most people are simply not capable of it. People get upset by failed relationships, and put effort into making them work, or repairing them, and seem to be able to overlook huge insults and injustices in those relationships in order to maintain them. How and why do they do this?

It is often said that autistic people with a rigid, black and white way of thinking are very sensitive to the notions of fairness and justice. This is definitely the case for me, and it has often been said that I don’t seem to be able to let it go if I, or anyone I know, has been treated unfairly or unjustly. And it’s right, I can’t let that stuff go.

I can be extremely patient and understanding, and forgiving with people, and overlook a whole host of issues… up to a point. But it seems that in every area of life, for me, there is a point beyond which I will tolerate no further crap. Once that line has been crossed, there is almost no way back for the people that cross it. Beyond that point, forgiveness is not impossible, but is highly unlikely, and trust is permanently impaired anyway. Effectively, those people are gone to me.

Why is it that I am capable of such cold decision making about people, when I don’t see that in neurotypicals? I have always seen my ability to cut off certain people when necessary as a strength; the fact that I can, if I need to, live completely independently from close relationships (I would make a very successful hermit), means that I don’t have to hang on to relationships through fear of being alone. Thus, if I stay in a relationship with someone, they can be absolutely sure it is because my feelings for them are 100% genuine. I have often felt that neurotypicals use relationships cynically, holding on to people for what they can get out of it, rather than for what they can offer. I see people in unhappy relationships and I wonder, Why don’t you just leave? I would, and I have done before now.

But… what if I’m getting this all wrong? What if my somewhat cold and logical approach to the politics of relationships, my failure to maintain some relationships, and my stark decisions not to maintain others, is down to a lack of empathy? What if the reason neurotypical people continue in these relationships, find forgiveness for transgressions, and keep hanging on in there, is to do with a greater appreciation of the other person’s feelings, circumstances, thoughts, motives, problems, and so on? Could that be it?

If so, then the first question I would have to ask myself is, Does it matter? Being different does not necessarily mean being worse. So now I have to be really honest in answering that question: Does it matter?

My answer is, yes. I think it might matter. It might matter a lot. Unless I plan on actually going ahead and being a hermit (I could do it if I had to, but I don’t want to), then I have to accept I live in a social world. Not having relationships, and sticking out like a sore thumb because of it, is not helpful. Plus, you need people around you for quite practical reasons, and if that sounds somewhat mercenary, then I would suggest that the drives and emotions neurotypical people experience that help them maintain relationships are actually ingrained by evolution for very practical survival reasons. We need close relationships for safety, health, comfort, entertainment, and procreation. We need professional relationships for financial comfort, and to help achieve our ambitions. And so on and so on through all types of relationships. There are practical considerations, and if we don’t accept those, we could find ourselves lonely not in the normally accepted emotional sense, but in a very real, practical way.

Some of the people who have left my life, I don’t miss at all. This includes my old gaming friends. Others, ones that have drifted away accidentally, or ones that I had unfortunate misunderstandings with, I do miss sometimes. If I had more empathy, would I have been less judgemental, more attentive, and more able to maintain these relationships? Is empathy the key?

As someone who has been literate from a very early age; a compulsive reader and writer, I have always assumed I understood what empathy was. In my mind, empathy has always simply been about understanding what another person is feeling. And until recently, I never had any reason to think I might be wrong in my understanding of the definition, or that I lacked empathy. But now, I think, is the time to question that assumption.

Talking about something as nebulous as empathy necessarily veers into the territory of philosophy; something I have a small amount of familiarity with. And one thing I have learned about philosophy, and indeed any meaningful debate, is that for any progress to be made, the terms must be understood clearly. So, is my understanding of empathy accurate? It took only a small amount of research to find that the answer to that question is no. Empathy is complicated, and not all the definitions agree with each other. Let’s have a look at some definitions.

Wikipedia

The opening to the Wikipedia entry on empathy gives us this:

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states. Types of empathy include cognitive empathy, emotional (or affective) empathy, and somatic empathy.

A broad range of emotional states, eh? And three types of empathy named! I’ll come back to these types of empathy shortly.

The Online Cambridge Dictionary

Cambridge keeps it a bit simpler in the basic definition:

The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

At first glance, this definition appears to be more in line with what I had always thought; Imagining what it would be like to be in another person’s situation. But wait… “The ability to share someone else’s feelings…Share someone’s feelings? What does that actually mean?

The Online Collins Dictionary

This goes further than Cambridge, and the definition is pretty significant, I think:

Empathy is the ability to share another person’s feelings and emotions as if they were your own.

As if they were your own? Really? Is this something neurotypicals actually experience?

Maybe it’s time to start looking in more detail at these supposed types of empathy. A bit of googling for types of empathy brings up a lot of blogs talking about the subject. Some of them seem to go down a bit of a rabbit hole. When I see the term spiritual empathy, I am immediately going to turn off, because I am a rational materialist. Some other blogs and definitions use different terminology to Wikipedia, but the general thrust seems to be that the idea of different types of empathy is widely accepted, and more or less in the way Wikipedia describes it:

Cognitive Empathy

This is essentially an intellectual understanding of another person’s emotional state. With cognitive empathy, you recognise whether a person is happy, sad, angry, etc. This type of empathy appears to have nothing directly to do with feeling what the other person is feeling. So it would seem that to have the type of empathy described by the Collins dictionary, you have to have both cognitive and one of the other types of empathy at the same time. And presumably, different people have differing levels of ability with cognitive empathy.

Affective Empathy

This appears to be an understanding at the emotional level, rather than the intellectual level, of what another person is feeling. It seems to be related to sympathy, and involves, for example, feeling upset by seeing another person upset. You feel compassion for the other person with this kind of empathy. Different sources define this slightly differently from each other, and disagree on terminology, but broadly this type of empathy seems to include both a purely personal feeling triggered by someone else’s emotional state, and also actually feeling the same emotion as the other person. I’m speculating then that this means you could be upset by seeing some being, say, frightened, and being upset by it would be your empathetic emotional response. Or you could actually feel fear seeing someone else frightened, even though you are not in danger yourself, and so that would be you feeling the same emotion as the other person. This is very interesting, as I will come to shortly.

Somatic Empathy

This is a bit strange. It involves having a physical reaction in response to someone else’s state. An often-quoted example is sympathy pains in pregnancy, like the partner of a pregnant person feeling morning sickness, and so on. I think this type of empathy is outside the scope of the discussion around autism, however.

So, what can I draw from all this?

Cognitive Empathy: I definitely have cognitive empathy. I’m certain I am able to recognise other people’s emotional states roughly on a par with a neurotypical person. I might struggle with the more subtle manifestations, for example if someone is deliberately hiding an emotional state. I would imagine that neurotypical people can fall foul of this as well – many comedies have been written on that premise. But I wonder if I may lack something on picking up the more subtle clues. Looking back over some experiences, I think that might explain a lot. But overall, I think I’m okay with picking it up, and I definitely understand what the differing emotional states are, and what they feel like. So far, so good.

Affective Empathy: If someone close to me, someone I love, is hurting, I can tell you I feel it on an emotional level. I can become very distressed. And similarly, if someone I love is experiencing joy, that makes me happy too. I think I have a pretty normal personal emotional response to the emotional state of the people closest to me. But beyond that, I can see where I am very different to most people on two important fronts.

1. I do not appear to have the ability to actually feel the same thing as another person in a mirroring sense. So, to use the example from earlier, If I see someone I love is frightened, I will be upset or concerned – a definite empathetic, emotional response. But I will not feel fear, unless I am personally threatened. If Someone I love experiences joy, that will make me happy, but I will not be experiencing the emotion as they do. So, it turns out I can understand another person’s feelings, and I can have an appropriate emotional response, but not that deeper level of empathy.

2. I have explained I have empathetic responses to the people closest to me. I can also have empathetic responses to other people, but here is the thing: I have the ability to switch off my empathy. I think I would struggle to switch it off with the people closest to my heart – I don’t think I could ever do that. But everyone else only has to cross a line, and I can flick a switch, and feel no empathy, or even sympathy for that person. When I cut someone off, I cut them off. They become unpeople. It doesn’t happen quickly or easily; someone has to really push my buttons in a big way for it to happen, but I can do it. And I think it is here where a potential problem lies: What if I get it wrong? What if, because I cannot really emotionally put myself in another person’s shoes; not really feel it the way they are feeling it, I cut someone off when I shouldn’t? What if a deeper level of empathy could have given me a better perspective, that could have led to me understanding, or forgiving, that person, and not cutting them off? Or even, failing that, what if I didn’t have that off switch? How would my life so far have been different? If I had been diagnosed, say, thirty years ago, as a much younger man, and had been forced to ask myself these questions back then, where would I be now? How would my various relationships have been different, and what improvements to my life could this have brought?

I will never know.


That’s all for this time. Stay safe, be kind.


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