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.

In which I admit ASD is a social disorder

I spend most of my energy considering the sensory processing aspects of neurodiversity because the intense way my nervous system experiences the world is vibrant, incredible, and exhausting. I am aware, of course, that an autism diagnosis implies social deficit (or at the very least, difference), but I have dear, life-long friends, both old and new, and the way I spend time with them seems to suit us.

All of this is to say, I do not often allow myself to consider that part of my neuro-difference is social. It is easier to walk away from a restaurant or bar and feel that my nervous system's depleted response is a result of the lights, reverberating sound, or symphony of smells, than it is to admit that the sheer effort of engaging is part of the picture.

But then, on rare occasion, I go to something that is sensory acceptable in every way. The wedding I attended yesterday took place in a beautiful spot in the woods, with music I love at a reasonable volume, and beautiful people, inside and out. 

I knew going in I didn't have the spoons for it. I had just spent two weeks traveling, spending time with family, visiting old friends and teachers, being maid of honor, and otherwise condensing what would normally be several months worth of socialization into a few days. I had hoped that one week off, spent mostly home with my partner and low input, would be enough recovery time.

The voice in my head that says it SHOULD be MORE than enough recovery time is insistent. Nor could I imagine telling the bride or my lovely friend and fellow wedding performer that I could not hold up my commitments because I needed to do NOTHING instead.

So I went. I donned a top hat and a hula hoop, danced in the woods, played with children, and attempted to make normal conversation with my colleagues from medical school.

There were moments of joy and laughter, and there were moments when I could feel myself failing. The moment the realization that I could not remember my med school friends' names sunk in with familiar horror (I REALLY should, and try, and fail constantly). The moment I responded to the pain I could tell a woman was feeling, instead of the light level on which she wanted to engage. The moment I know I responded oddly because everyone froze for too long, but I am still not sure exactly how I missed the mark. The moment I looked at the guest names and realized that to be invited as a performer is not the same as to be invited as oneself. The moment I knew that no matter how much fun I thought it would be to stay and dance the night away, I had to leave because med school starts back on Monday and 7 hours will already take Sunday to recover.

And when I got home I cried. I cried because these things should not be so hard. I cried because it doesn't make sense that something you enjoy and seems so fluid for others can take such an undeniable amount of work. I cried because I finally fully admitted to myself that no matter how I may sometimes be able to make it look, and even if I do not have "social anxiety," my social experience is not typical. 

Today I am home. I am partially shut down, but I am okay, and I am glad I went. The pictures show more of the joy and play than I could remember when I got home last night and I am grateful for their reminders that sometimes (not even close to always, but sometimes), it is worth the work to be there for these moments.