When I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in 1994 there was a prevailing attitude that people on the Autism spectrum were incapable or love, closeness and empathy. Apparently we only formed attachments to objects and characters in science fiction. The funny thing was that this didn’t immediately make me angry, which it certainly does when people say it to me now. As a twenty year old who had already experienced all manner of abuse and trauma, I didn’t really feel much inclined to love others or form close attachments. When I looked at my childhood there hand’t been a lot of overt outpourings of love and closeness to humans either. I struggled to grieve as a child, going through the motions of behaving in the way that I thought was expected of me to avoid people thinking I was a serial killer in the making.
When I look back I think the issue around emotional attachement was less about my Autism and more about my alexithymia. Alexithymia is a condition which many Autistic people – and others – experience whereby we can’t access or feel much in the way of emotion. When my Grandpa died I certainly missed him and wished he was still around and there was definitely grief going on but I struggled to access feelings around it. I didn’t understand this particular element of what made me ‘me’ and instead was terrified that I was incapable of emotion or attachment. When I joined the socialist party as a teenager I remember trying to make myself feel anger at some abuse of human rights or war atrocities. My socialist comrades were great at being angry on behalf of some oppressed minority but my anger was far more cerebral than visceral. I couldn’t hate some world leader with a deep passion, even if I found their actions morally or intellectually abhorrent. I thought I must have my emotion switch permanently set to ‘off’ or at least ‘very low.’ When I got older I developed a mental illness. This resulted in all sorts of emotions but I was not conscious of them on any level. I know I felt ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘nothing’ or ‘in crisis.’ These are still my basic emotional setting some twenty years later and I still struggle to identify and access emotions.
Now people have a much better understanding of how we experience emotions and know that Autistic people are capable of love, attachment and empathy but there are still stereotypes about our apparent lack of ‘normal human emotions’ floating around. So here’s me refuting this negative business which sees Autistic people as unfeeling robots…
- Having difficulty accessing and identifying emotions is not the same as being incapable of love or empathy. Autistic people love people deeply but sometimes it looks a little different.
- When my eldest niece was born, I held her at one day old and was overwhelmed by love and closeness and a wish to protect her from any harm. Just because I don’t often have access to that feeling does not mean I am incapable of it.
- Love and attachment can be based in actions and thinking, not just feeling. I spend at least 30 hours each week doing largely unpaid work to promote understanding, acceptance and respect around Autism and mental illness. I never meet most of the people who are touched by my work, it does not have much material benefit to me and it can be exhausting, frustrating and infuriating. The main reason I do this work is the degree to which I care about other people and hope they don’t experience some of the negative things I did in my youth.
- Autistic people have long-term intimate relationships and love their partner just like anyone else does. I have many friends on the spectrum who are in long-term committed relationships or married. My friend and fellow advocate Anita Lesko just married her fiancé Abraham Nielsen recently. Not only did the couple love one another enough to take vows of faithfulness and commitment, they loved their community enough to hold what was described as the world’s first all Autism wedding. All the guests and the celebrant were on the spectrum. Some of the guests had never attended a wedding before (as an aside, a lot of Autistic people do not get invited to weddings. I am 41 and I have only been to three weddings in my life. I have a lovely friend who is on the spectrum too and she is getting married in February and I have the privilege of attending her wedding and seeing her and her soon-to-be husband exchange vows).
- Autistic people are not necessarily ‘cold’ parents. Our community really suffers form these sorts of stereotypes. All the parents I know who are on the spectrum are fiercely protective and loving of their children. My mum is on the spectrum and her love for me and my brother is so evident I can almost see it emanating from her when I visit her.
- I have a number of attachments in my life which bring me happiness. When I see certain people I am delighted just to see them. Some people email me and I am excited just to see their name pop up in my inbox. I don’t think that is an example of someone who has no attachment to humans.
- Empathy for people on the spectrum can look a little different but it is still empathy. In my case, I have two sorts of empathy. The first is intellectual empathy. This means that I will find out a person’s likes, needs and preferences and ensure that I provide them with they might need. When they tell me they are sad, I listen and ask what they need. This is not an intuitive, feeling empathy but it is empathy nonetheless (at least in my humble opinion). The other sort of empathy I experience is a little more problematic, at least for me. This is what psychologists term ‘hyper-empathy’. This means that I will pick up on other people’s feelings without them even speaking. I feel their sadness or joy as much as if I were experiencing it myself. Of course this is something of a liability in psychiatric hospitals – where I occasionally find myself. Not only am I experiencing my own crises and misery but everyone else’s as well!
- Stereotypes are rarely helpful. All Autistic people – like the rest of the people – are individuals. What is true for me will not be try for someone else.
If you need me, I will be cuddling Mr Kitty, who I love very much!
This is my Dad. I love my Dad very much