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 “special interests”

In my application essay for medical school, I wrote about my transition from studying literature in undergrad and seriously considering pursuing an MFA to completing a pre-med post-bac program. To others, these seemed disparate, as though I had completely switched gears, and in many ways I had – the relationship between creativity and science is a complicated one.

But this was not a case of dropping one interest in favor of another. It was an evolution.

In the essay, years before my autism diagnosis or awareness, I used the words “special interest” to describe my incredible drive to understand people. I have always been fascinated by humanity. Literature was an opening into a world of other minds and emotions, across history, beyond borders and even worlds. I read books in trees, making friends with more characters than other children, feeling into the breadth of possible experience. Patterns emerged from the themes and motifs writers have used regardless of their origin, highlighting the experiences and questions that seem to unite us all.

Many years later, when discussing with my counselor the possibility of seeking a formal diagnosis, she asked me about what seemed like my great insight into others minds and emotions – a knowledge not typically associated with those of us on the spectrum. I found the question a bit confusing; I learned how to understand people the same way I have learned most things I know, through observation, reading, and a good deal of self-education. I learned how to have a conversation through books. I learned good manners through the indoctrination of a loving Southern grandmother, and I appreciate the consistency in the South’s rules and expectations for behavior and conversation. I learned how to be a normal sociable teenager from one of my oldest and dearest friends, who banned me from bringing extra books to school and from using “unnecessarily big words.” I have learned something from everyone I have ever met, which keeps the world rich and interaction important, even with the desire to withdraw is strong.

In time, fiction shifted to non-fiction, literature to psychology, and language to medicine. The same interest drives me still – to understand how and why we are as we are, and how to bring as much joy, peace, and expansion into that existence as possible.

In my diagnostic interview, the psychologist asked me if I had any special interests. “What makes a special interest any different from a passion or a career? If you are asking if I always have personal projects going and research on my mind, or if I will light up at the opportunity to share these questions and insights with anyone who has a genuine interest in listening, then yes, of course. But I do not see how that is diagnostic.”

She also asked if I “copied other people” to know how to behave. “Well, that’s a loaded way to put it! If you are asking if masking resonates with me, or if I feel that the way I learned social norms was atypical, then yes. But I do not feel like I walk outside and mirror everyone around me like a game of copycat to have a conversation.”

The fascinating thing about my “special interest,” something that supposedly makes me “more autistic,” is that it makes me look much less autistic. It has become part of my skill set, learning how to interact with people and in the world. It helps me camouflage or mask, as we say in the autistic community, but it is also so much of who I am and how I perceive that it no longer feels like something I intentionally adopt, but a natural extension of how I have learned to be in the world.

The best part about being driven to understand myself and others is that I will never run out of things to explore and learn. It is truly a bottomless, ever-expanding “special interest,” and it certainly is special to me.