Autistic Empaths

Sensory Processing Sensitivity on the Spectrum and Beyond

Autistic Empaths is a project and book in the making about sensory processing sensitivity as a trait and how it manifests on the Autism Spectrum (ASD), in Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), ADD/ADHD, synesthesia, BPD, addiction, and other conditions. Sensory processing sensitivity is the official term for what has been called the trait of high sensitivity; people who self-identify with it call themselves Highly Sensitive People, or HSPs. The trait includes increased empathy, depth of processing, overstimulation, and sensitivity to subtleties.

On congruency and communication

When I first began the integrative mental health masters program, now almost two years ago, I was confused by the concept of "congruency." We were graded in our counseling practice sessions on whether or not we were "congruent" and it seemed to take me ages to understand what that meant.

The definition was straightforward. The word congruent means "in agreement or harmony." In time, it registered that a counselor is being congruent when our words match our demeanor. This means what we say is in agreement with our facial expressions, body language, and I would add energy/vibes as well. It is important because it helps the client trust us and feel at ease.

The root of my confusion was this: I did not understand how it was possible to be INcongruent in the first place, unless we were acting. My mind asked: how is it even possible to not... match?

In a way, in everyday chit-chat surface-level conversation people ARE acting. Every time someone says "I'm fine" and is really having a miserably difficult day, they are being incongruent. This is not deceptive or malicious in any way; in fact, it seems not to even register as intentional for most people, but now that I am aware of it I can almost chart my days by how many incongruent encounters I have.

And I'm starting to think that has something to do with being autistic. Or an empath, or an HSP, or some combination of the above.

I have been sitting with the question of social interaction difficulties for awhile now, and these are the patterns that emerge for me. One-on-one interactions are universally the easiest and most enjoyable, especially in environments that are either familiar or not overstimulating because my "taking in all the details" brain can focus on the details of the person in front of me (people make seemingly infinite facial expressions) without having to filter out unnecessary stimuli noise. This is why I am good at the work I do - as a health coach now, and (hopefully) as a counselor and naturopathic physician in the future. Groups are much harder in general, but some groups are vastly more difficult than others. Familiar groups are easier (family, old friends), which seems fairly universal, but sometimes the difference in difficulty is far less obvious.

Last night I went to an Ojibwe/Lakota sweat lodge ceremony, something I have been doing every few weeks the past 18 months. When I left around midnight, I realized I had just stood around a fire, sharing a meal and conversation with six Native American men mostly in their sixties, and it felt natural, pleasant, and not at all like work. As a white, non-Native young woman painfully aware of her own privilege (and still working on uncovering my blind spots), that struck me as noteworthy. Why does sitting down in the lunchroom with a group of my peers I am more familiar with and to leave me exhausted, and last night felt so... easy?

Questions have a way of answering themselves after a good sweat. Two things emerged. The first is cultural: I like being around people who have an innate sense that everything is connected, that nature is to be valued, and that no matter how much inter-generational trauma we carry, diverse unity is the answer. 

The second? Congruency. 

Some cultures value and embody congruency, and others value... well I am not sure exactly, but it seems to be some combination of manners, social interaction formulas, and keeping your serious personal s*?! locked in the closet.

Not as a rule, of course. Broad-sweeping cultural claims are not my goal here, so much as to point out a pattern. There are always individuals raised or living in the "I'm fine" culture who are bold and honest and frank and blunt (see also: rude, intense, insensitive, New Yorker... all words either undeserved or under appreciated) and these delightfully congruent people are also the ones I am drawn to engage with. 

Why is interacting with incongruence so much work? Practically speaking, it means that during those "I'm fine" conversations I am trying to track two different levels of experience - the spoken and publicly acknowledged, and the inner, authentic experience of the person I am engaging with. As an empath, the latter is the information that hits me first and makes the most sense. That is the experience I want to engage with, to connect to the other person in a real way. But when it does not match the words they say I have to quickly process which level they want me to respond to. Do they want me to pretend I do not notice the sadness in their eyes because they don't want to talk about it? Or do they need someone to ask again, how are you, really

Add in the context these conversations typically take place in - coffee shops, passing in the hallway, at the break room at work - with all of their additional things to process and it is no wonder I feel like those extra few seconds it takes me to process and respond take an eternity. Often echoing back is easier, "I'm fine, too, thanks."

Except by then, I am not fine. That little interaction took a whole spoon. I can talk one-on-one, authentically, earnestly, passionately for hours. I can spend a whole evening at a sweat and leave energized and expansive. But these multi-level, incongruent interactions are exhausting. In reality, I may not notice one or two in a day, but they add up to such an extent that at the end of a day a simple incongruent "I'm fine" can push me to the verge of exhausted tears. It takes so much work to process simultaneous incongruent information and then be expected to communicate. 

I wonder if this is really part of my flavor of neurodiversity, or if it is a universal experience some people just have a capacity to ignore. I suspect it is, like so many things, a spectrum. Those of us officially on the spectrum may just feel this to an extent it makes "I'm fine" conversations something to be avoided or unsuccessfully socially navigated, but I suspect we would all enjoy a world that had space for a little more congruency.