High Empathy: The Cause For Super Secondhand Embarrassment

One of the biggest stereotype about autistic people is that we have less empathy, but that’s opposite from the truth. A good example of this is the heightened secondhand embarrassment that many autistic people feel.

This is not a very talked about characteristic of autism, but I’ve seen it in many people, including myself. It’s especially potent in young children. When I was little if a character on tv did something that was silly or embarrassing I would have to hide away from the tv or sometimes I’d even have to leave the room. Even as a adult I find myself turning away or skipping scenes of shows that are embarrassing. Nerotypicals experience secondhand embarrassment too, but it’s far less intense. I believe this reaction is rooted in empathy. Similar to when something sad happen, you may also feel sad, you might cry because you are feeling empathy. You are are sharing in that feeling. So when I see embarrassing things I feel embarrassed as well.

Even though this reaction is plain empathy others can often misunderstand it. I recently witnessed this same reaction while my dad was watching tv. (He has given permission for me to write this) I noticed he was skipping scenes of the good doctor with awkward interaction, specifically a bad date and a fight where the main character was being yelled at for being apathetic. One of these is a comedy scenes, but the other is an emotional moment. Seen from the outside you could take my dads reaction as him being apathetic to the characters and how they feel. Like the stereotype itself the problem is that autistic people feel just as deeply as anyone, but because we may show it differently others may think we aren’t feeling anything at all. Autistic people feel empathy, we often feel too much of it, the way it’s perceived doesn’t change that fact.

Boundaries and Eye Contact

I am someone who doesn’t make eye contact. I look under the eyes and even then I have to take breaks from fatigue. The fact that we make young children who may also be dealing with something similar or worse than this is not necessary to help with their development. I don’t think encouraging eye contact is bad, if a child is willing to give it but the problem starts when they aren’t.

Eye contact has never been important in my life, it doesn’t even change how other perceive me as no one can tell the difference wether you are using it or not. It’s just the way nerotypicals do it’ll and like all things that doesn’t make it right. What people say they want is eye contact but they just want their children to learn which is more about concentration, and can be monitored and taught separate from eye contact. It’s important for a child to know how to focus when their name is called or when being told rules for their safety , but none of these thing need eye contact.

The way eye contact is taught needs to change. It’s important to know that people with an aversion to eye contact are not always incapable of it, it just depends on circumstance. I work with many kids with a spectrum of eye contact uses from some who have no problem with it to some who can’t give any. Many like to use it when playing a fun game or telling a jokes, but they will stop when they’ve had enough. I think encouraging this is where teaching eye contact should end. Just like dragging and man handling kids you won’t get anywhere by force, and by choosing to try to teach eye contact passed a child’s threshold you’re teaching them that their boundaries don’t matter. By forcing them to do something that’s not only unnecessary, but may be hurting them you’re teaching them that their feeling and how they communicate them don’t mean anything. That communication and self identity are just as important as learning to focus.

Self Doubt vs Self Advocacy

I am very easily hurt by the words of others. Being autistic I am always tying to view myself from the outside in case I am missing something socially important, but because of that I take anything people say seriously. This can make passing jokes into something I have to analyze for weeks and simple conversation into sudden pitfalls. So on one hand I can be oversensitive and don’t want to ruin friendships over nothing, but I also know I need to communicate when people say things that truly hurt me.

This balancing act is endlessly confusing. None of the people I know are meaning to make fun of me for being autistic, but they also will never know what I’m feeling unless I tell them. The problem is that all of me is my autism so I have to separate what is truly hurting me from what is normal for joking with friends. These thought are not always fair to them and some even come from my own misunderstanding. Even if they tried to accommodate me it would just lead to feeling like everyone is tip toe around my feelings. What I’m definitely not looking for is pity.

I’ve been finding the best way to handle this doubt is to just stick to my gut. If something really upsets me I need to communicate that feeling. I think I will always try to accommodate others before myself and I know that’s not always healthy. The solution for me is to work on speaking my mind and trying not to let the need to mask stop communication with those I care about.

Why I Hated English Class Social Expectations

As a child I had the stereotypical love of math class and hated English. I could never understand why English class was so difficult for me when everyone else just seemed to get it. I’m older now and that feeling has become all to common for me. The feeling of divide that come from unknown social rules.

The problem with the way we teach English right now is that for the first few year we teach it like anything else it’s facts, learning your letters, basic grammar, more solid information. As thing get more complex something gets left out. Suddenly writing becomes about creativity and social engagement, like any form of communication it has its own rules and nuances, but those aren’t taught to us the way math and science are. To write a story you must have characters converse, to make a speech you must use body language, a compelling essay must have you convey your feelings with the correct level of formality. There is truly nothing worse then education that’s graded on social skills alone. I grew to dread English class.

When it comes to classes like math or history they are taught through facts, concrete information that can only be taught so many ways, English everyone has there own way to write, for an autistic kid like me all I saw was anxiety inducing contradictions and secret restrictions. I’m only writing now because there is no longer expectations for how I writing. I can just enjoy it now.

Switching Between Social Scripts

I realized this week that I can get trapped in a social script when trying to match how people act at work. This had never been a problem before because I hated my previous jobs and I was so miserable I didn’t have time to make friends. I’m pretty friendly with my new co-workers and we often joke around while working, but we are at work and need to be professional. This is a problem for me because my scripts for friendly interactions and working interactions are very different. I find myself getting sucked into the atmospheres around me and get stuck in my friendly script, which causes me to not act as responsible as I normally would. I usually only realize it later that I was in the wrong script. This can be very embarrassing. Scripting at this point is the same as breathing, when in an unknown situation I naturally start blending into how the people around me act, but its frustrating because what everyone is doing is not always the right thing to do, I know this. I’m new to the concept of work relationships so I need to learn to trust my judgement and remember that there are no finite rules for social interactions.

Underdeveloped Identity

When I was a teenager and had just discovered that I didn’t fit in I began trying to act and dress like everyone else. This went on until I gained enough confidence to try to find a version of myself that I liked too, but I quickly found that I didn’t know how to like things. I would go to the mall with my friends and get very confused, I’d ask them ” how to you know when you like clothes?” and they wouldn’t know how to explain it. I was able to have a special interest and like thing including it. I was able to dislike thing such as scratchy fabrics or a tight shirts, but I wasn’t able take an interest in anything else.

I find that many young autistic people have underdeveloped sense of identity . We are always learning, we have to be to function in social situations. We are constantly being judged and correcting our action, with all the opinions swirling around us sometimes it’s easier to just let other people take the reins. Why bother being unique with all the consequences? This second guessing of our identity is why many of us stagnate by the time we reach high school. By the time we’re old enough to show our individuality we’ve already been taught to fear the social risk. I found myself really depressed because of this, it felt like I had no way to interact with the world, I felt like I was a blank slate not really living just parroting “real people”. I felt so lonely. Knowing yourself, knowing how you personally interact with the world is so necessary. Autistic people need to be allowed to develop their identities, we cannot learn to care about ourselves when we don’t even try to know ourselves.

I worked on this everyday. My identity can be seen easiest through my clothes. I started wearing whatever was comfortable or special interest related, then moved to things I found weird, anything that would make my friends laugh, and slowly I was able to figure out what I like and let it change with me. I’m not a teenager anymore, but I’m still trying to find joy and enjoyment in my identity and it’s hard. Sometimes I want to stop, it takes a lot of energy to put yourself into the world, but it’s worth it. It’s through these things that I have learned to find confidence and now I try to encourage it in others. My little brother started wearing a necklace the other day and I overloaded on complements because it was the first time he had ever worn something just because he liked it. I believe that’s all we really have to do. Support autistic youth, let them develop there own personalities and don’t force ones onto them.

Autism and Masking

When someone gave me the idea of putting my thought and feeling out there to get them out of my head it seemed like a great idea. I have a lot to say and I’m not afraid to say it, but “start a blog about yourself” is a vague idea. There are no instructions, no rules, no baseline to make sure I am “doing it right” which can cause me endless stress. I’ve decided to do it anyways because its 2 am and I can’t sleep. Just like most things with no instruction I started researching and obsessing. I hate having no direction it can even throw me into a panic, I need instructions, examples, but I will never ask for them. I believe this need for rules is the root of masking.

It’s hard to explain how it feels to mask, I like to describe it as a cliff edge. Nerotypical climb the cliff in the daytime, they know where the edge is, they can walk freely and feel safe. Being autistic is like being on that cliff at night. You have your arms outstretched, you’re taking smaller steps being more careful because you don’t know where the drop is, but you know its out there. It’s sutler then nerotypicals usually understand I can usually just copy others and stay quite when I don’t know what to do, which usually works, but sometime I stumble and fall off that cliff.

This is the wrong way to look at this I know that, its ok to ask for help, but that’s the instinct with masking. You get good at it and you loose yourself, you forget who you are and you need the rule to tell you how to be, because without them what if you do something wrong. Young people, especially young girls with autism are taught to hide because we’re use to getting hurt. That cliff is there, social rules are there, but it’s ok to ask for help and more importantly, it’s ok to fall off the cliff. Social rules are there to communicate, but communication doesn’t stop because you get them wrong. Masking can be a shield, it can be who you are in unknown situations, and its fine to use it to navigate the world, everyone is doing similar, but the problem I see is if I start believing that I’m only worth something when I am masking that becomes self hatred.

I’m working hard to change how I treat myself. I am starting this blog with no instruction. I am allowed to make mistakes, have other people judge me, or not care at all. I am trying to understand that people will still care about me if I annoy them or if I stand out. Others will still love us and we will still love ourselves not despite our differences or because of them. I am allowed to just live.