On perpetuating myths, autism as metaphor, and again - empathy
Metaphors can be a powerful use of language. They can add layers of insight and depth of feeling that straightforward, two-dimensional language challenges to convey. But in order for a metaphor to succeed in this communication, the metaphor-user must have a strong understanding of the concepts being compared separately from one another. In order to bring something new and true forward by aligning the concepts together, they must be grasped individually. When one of those initial concepts is misunderstood, metaphors become reckless, insensitive, and even dangerous.
More often than not, when autism is used as a metaphor it perpetuates and expands damaging misconceptions, particularly around capacity for empathy. Last night I attended a presentation by a well-respected German pediatrician entitled, "Autism in the 21st Century." Given the wide disparity in approaches to understanding autism, I tried to do my research before I went (and let's be honest, I always research everything). There was very little written about the presenter in English, but from what I could gather I was unlikely to subject myself to two hours of anti-vaccination diatribes, and I was curious if her different cultural and medical backgrounds would provide a new perspective.
When I walked out, all I could think was, very un-eloquently, "F*?! THAT NOISE."
The take-home message was this: Our modern technology-driven, screen-addicted, materialistic society is making everyone lack empathy and therefore become functionally autistic. She suggested we should learn from autism as a symbolic example of what will happen if we continue down this course, hiding in our own virtual worlds rather than connecting with those around us.
As a future natural health care provider, I agree we should put down our phones. Our increasing challenges with sitting quietly, waiting, feeling at ease in boredom, and our increasingly compulsive need to be fed a piece of information, a mini-experience, or simply a distraction, is not serving us. This is why mindfulness, nature, and connection are so important.
But one more time for the people in the back: AUTISM HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH A LACK OF EMPATHY.
Listening to this medical professional, who has worked with autistic children, describe us as people who are only interested in objects, in the unchanging material, in technology and the strictly objective, to hear that we don't make eye contact because we do not care, was painfully disappointing. How she must be missing the people she tries to help, and worse still - she is perpetuating these myths to a room full of medical providers, educators, and parents. Her words, with the weight and power of an "experienced professional," will reinforce assumptions that will leave autistic children unseen, misunderstood, and further removed from the possibility of connection.
To hear her say I cannot feel what my senses perceive, that I cannot resonate with my environment and particularly the people in it, that I cannot feel others, is so far from my reality it was hardly comprehensible. I feel EVERYTHING.* While some autistic people have a difficult time naming their emotions (a separate often co-occurring condition called alexithymia) or expressing sympathy to others (part of social communication), most of us have a profound felt sense of empathy. Often we feel so much from other people it is overwhelming. We look away not because we do not care, but because your face shares so much information and we feel so much from you it can be too much to process - especially when we are then expected to access language and respond in a socially accepted way.
If people are going to insist on using diagnoses as metaphors, the diagnosis you are looking for to indicate an absence of empathy is sociopathy. If you want to use autism as a metaphor and you are not autistic yourself - don't. If you cannot understand that experience well enough to describe it accurately on its own, you do not understand it well enough to use it to describe something else.
We are not your metaphor.
*Except when I am disassociated, which my nervous system does to protect me from feeling everything.