Posted in Autistic Identity, Parenting

Empathy and the Autistic: Learning the Words to Match the Feelings

While this post is from my archives and happened about a year ago, other than the fact that my husband no longer works with many neurotypicals, this post is effectively still true.  Hope it helps someone!

Funny thing happened that got me thinking.  Technically, a pair of funny things, close enough together for me to notice this.

Empathy is a skill people are somewhat overtly taught as a way of telling people you care about them.  This empathy thing matters a LOT to neurotypicals.  I remember learning about it in the (quite fabulous) book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish, which can ordinarily be quite helpful.  I say ordinarily, because a lot of people are neurotypicals and expect this.  Or, they’re Neurodivergent types like me who have been socialized to believe that this empathy stuff indicates caring.


[Image: Book cover of the Faber & Mazlish book. It’s yellow with two conversation bubbles on it]
My husband’s boss recently tried to empathize by telling him that she got “anxiety,” too, and my teacher tried to empathize by saying everyone hates construction and driving in the rain in the dark.  Well, yes, these are true facts, but they disregard our Disability as no big deal.  I get that commonalities are a way to bring us together, but if you’re actually saying the panic you get from driving in the rain, in the dark, will stay with you for hours upon arriving home, rendering you potentially unfit for work in the morning, okay, you get it.

But I suspect that’s not what you meant.

But it wasn’t my teacher, or my husband’s boss’ fault.  This is what we’ve all been taught to do: to focus on what makes us same.

This comes along with the idea of “empathy” where, even if we can’t sympathize (know what someone else is feeling), we can try to imagine ourselves in your shoes and go with it.

After coming to terms with my Autistic self, I realized that I don’t really give a damn about empathy (or even sympathy) because both assume that my FEELINGS are what I want validated.  I know that feelings are feelings; they are neither right nor wrong; rather, they just are.  This is the post in which I unpack empathy.

In a recent Simpsons episode, “The Marge-Ian Chronicles,” had a short scene which my husband and I found not only hilarious, we thought it should be taught as a script under “dealing with neurotypicals.”  Here’s the relevant stuff:

Marge: Sometimes I feel like Lisa has no respect for me!

Homer: I know, I know.

Marge: I’m finally good at something and she has to make it into a competition!

Homer: That must be really hard for you.

Marge: It is!

Homer: I’m so sorry you have to go through this.

Marge: Thank you.

The best part is Bart does the same thing to Lisa:

Lisa: Mom’s always trying to hold me back!

Bart: I know, I know.

Lisa: I can’t be her little girl forever!

Bart: That must be really hard for you.

Lisa: It is!

Bart: I’m so sorry you have to go through this.

Lisa: Thank you.

 There is a future scene when a robot called “nod-bot” is programmed to say these exact same phrases with similar effect on future-Lisa.  My husband and I laughed so hard that we were nearly choking.

[Image: A red claymation-type figure with a boxy head talks to another person; I guess they’re standing on a ledge so the happier-looking guy is probably validating the sad-looking guy’s feelings. They have mouths (one pointed up, the other down or otherwise there’d be really no way to know that one guy is upset. Me, I worry his non-verbals look like he is INVITING dude to jump and I would focus on preventing the jump somehow. I think he’s going to empathize him right over the edge!]
 You see, neurotypical women tend to expect this sort of thing.  You can validate without, well, listening.

I think Autistics are a bit different.

See, we don’t so much care about being understood (after all, we’ve spent our whole lives being different; we’re different, we get it), but we like to be right.  I’ve mentioned somewhere, I think, that the worst insult to an Autistic is to be told that he or she is wrong, and I think that holds for most of us.  We might not get social cues, but we get RIGHT ANSWERS (even if sometimes our right answers are so outside the box that others don’t get it).

So let me play the same scene in a way that would be more helpful to me:

Marge: Sometimes I feel like Lisa has no respect for me!

Homer: Yeah, sometimes she completely ignores what you’re trying to do.  Maybe it’s not a lack of respect, but just being a kid; she’ll mature out of it.

Marge: You think?  Do you think there’s some way we can speed it up?

Homer: Do you really want her to grow up faster?

Marge: Gosh, no.  Well, yeah, I guess we have to live with this.

Homer: It’s just another phase.  A lot of neurotypicals do this.  I have a book on the subject/TED Talk/well-researched website if you want to look into this more.

Marge: Thank you.

While I know Homer saying those things is kind of ridiculous, my point is that if I’m sharing feelings (yes, we have feelings, okay?!!!), I’m looking for a few things:

1.  I want to be validated.  Like actually validated.  As in, yeah, you’re right.  That’s right, buddy, I’m RIGHT.

2. I want to get a neurotypical’s take on this, but I want the nt take on it to be well-researched or at least built on common experiences.  I’m a pretty good reader of neurotypicals, but if I missed something, I want to know it so I can file it away later.

3. If you know where I can research it, it’ll save me time if you tell me.  But don’t let that “research” come from people who don’t actually know anything.  I don’t do that stuff.  We can disagree on it, but it can’t be like those moms who fanatically follow Andrew Wakefield level of foolish.  It has to be a legitimate disagreement based on the addition of new facts, rather than one side going “no, you’re not” or “that’s what big Pharma WANTS you to think.”  I’m not Dale Gribble from King of the Hill.

I don’t think this kind of “validation” works on kids.  I find Faber and Mazlish’s book seems to work roughly okay on my Autistic son for now.  But keep in mind that he goes to school at home and doesn’t interact offline with people who are not family, generally.  He has not yet learned that his “rightness” is what makes him special.

But that makes me think: is the reason I like to be validated on being right first because I’ve internalized the sense of my own identity as being “the smart, quiet one who got louder and more opinionated as she got older”?  But if that’s the case, that means I see myself only as valuable for what my peers saw in me during my K-12 years.

They saw a whole bunch of other things, too, but they weren’t remotely flattering (and honestly being smart wasn’t considered a good thing, either).

How do we change that tape, the one that “ruined” us by “socialization” with peers of our roughly same chronological age?


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