Sympathy for the Autistic / Being Autistic

“Having any child is a life-changing experience. Having one who isn’t like you, though, is also a learning experience. I think I cried when it fully sunk in that “childhood wonder” is a real and short-lived thing for allistic children, and I did a double take recently when my wife stated that soon our son’s emotions would open wide up. He’s already more emotional than I ever have been!

On a day-to-day basis, my son is a lot more talkative than I ever was. He seldom wants to play with toys unless he can do so with other people . . . and he plays in a completely different way. He wants to have the characters talk, and often he wants to narrate the entire “story” telling me what my characters do, as well…

…Both of them are also way more comfortable asking me for things than I am with doing the same. The issue is, they tend to be extremely vague.

My life is punctuated with “Can you do something for me?”, “Can I have a favor?”, “I’m hungry.” , “Can you do it for me?”, “Can you get it for me?”, “Daddy, can you play with me?”, “I’m lonely. Can you be with me for a bit?”

If there’s one very important thing I’ve learned from having a neurotypical child, it’s this:

Independence is not something you are going to have with an NT child. They need a lot of attention.”

-Jaime A. Heidel, “What Is It Like for An Autistic Parent to Raise a Non-Autistic Child? June 26, 2019.

There are occasions, such as when reading this, when I find I am very much in sympathy with the autistic perspective. This is not just an issue with children, but people in general. They are emotional. Frequently people are asking for something from those around them that assumes you know what they want. They always want to be together. Frequently, people don’t want to be responsible for their own problems.

The funny bit is how I use “they” in the preceding paragraph. Largely, I do not need to be around people. I only ask for help when there is no other way to get something done. I am not going to talk about myself or my emotions. All of which points to the possibility that perhaps I’m on the spectrum?

The strange bit is when around children, and their torrent of emotions, I find I’m much more sympathetic than when I’m with adults. Adults hide their pain and often lash out. Children will show it, and then you can tell them, “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I’m not used to being around small children.” They, rarely hearing such an admission from an adult, often feel much better after. Truly, I’m not trying to hurt their feelings. While this is also true of adults, it’s much harder to recognize that you have hurt an adult’s feelings, and even more difficult to say you didn’t mean to do it.

Why Do We Talk to One Another?

Open Question: Why do we talk to one another?

“…To varying degrees, there is an uncrossable chasm between you and everybody you care about.

There are two ways you can interpret this. One is the depressing route: to believe that your friends are not really your friends and that you don’t really know them. That you will never really know anybody at all. Or you can take the more optimistic route: it’s not that you know your friends less than you thought you did, it’s that you know strangers more. You don’t need to have an established relationship to help someone. Even transient moments have meaning.

This second route is the one my colleagues and I take every time we pick up the phone. Conversations on a phone helpline are different from normal conversations in two ways: we make few assumptions about the caller or their background, and our goal is for the caller to reach a better emotional state than when the conversation started.”

-Natalia Dashan, “Working on a suicide helpline changed how I talk to everyone.” November 9, 2020.

I find this quote interesting. For me, conversations are about ideas. I talk to people because I want people to know something, or I want to know something. However, I generally view people’s emotional states as their own problem. Managing our emotions is, arguably, one of the defining features that separate human beings from animals.

On the other hand, I recognize that my view is certainly the minority, if not an outlier. Most people’s conversations is primarily emotional in nature, where they are talking about their feelings and want other people to talk about theirs.

My experience is shaped by my relationships with people with Cluster B personality disorders. I have many posts on this topic, e.g., A Narcissist’s Prayer, Hoodoos, Toxic People, Psychic Vampires, Sucking Black Holes, The Unhappy & The Unlucky, etc. The common tactic of people that manipulate others is to get them to talk about themselves, and then, they use this information to their advantage.

In my view, trying to manipulate someone else’s emotional state, even if you are doing so with their benefit in mind, is still manipulation. In certain circumstances, such as when you are working on a suicide help line, this may be appropriate behavior. People are calling in crisis are because they need help. You are there to help them. So, these kinds of interactions are kind of built in.

However, I’m not as comfortable thinking about helping the people in my life this way. This is the kind of behavior that underlies the paternalism that most parents engage in with their children, that what they are doing is for their own good. However, it is often “their own good” from our perspective and not theirs, which can often not be their good but our own. How is this different from the behavior of a Cluster B personality? I’m not sure it is different.

Yet, on the other hand, creating environments where people can grow and be supported emotionally is something most of us want. Individually, we can increase our vocabulary that helps us describe, understand and experience our feelings, using tools such as The Feeling Wheel or the guidebook, “Staying With Feelings“. But, maybe one piece I’ve been missing is that this kind of development ultimately has to be processed through our relationship with others.

The rub, and the thing that is very much not clear to me, is how do you make sure that what you are doing is about getting to a better emotional state for everyone rather than getting a better emotional state for ourselves or manipulating other people’s emotions for some other ends. I find this question difficult, one where I have thought it is best to let people deal with their own emotions and try not to be involved with it. But, I’m thinking, in this moment, that this is naive. Every conversation has an emotional component, and we cannot pretend that we don’t have, at least, some responsibility for the kind of emotional environment we are creating, both for ourselves and others.

I don’t have any answers here. However, I do think these are good questions worth much deeper exploration.

Staying With Feelings — Meg-John Barker & Focusing — Eugene T. Gendlin

“Stay with the feeling, with interested curiosity, not trying to change it, or to force it to communicate: just being with it gently and curiously. Try to understand it from it’s point of view. Notice any words, images, or metaphors that come to mind. Acknowledge everything that comes up, e.g., further feelings or lack of feelings.”

—Meg-John Barker, “Staying With Feelings.”

During conversations, ask yourself:

  1. How does it feel?
  2. Where is it in my body?
  3. What’s the best word to describe it?

Then, respond.

Asking these questions helps is to understand our emotional landscape, which feelings we tend to prefer and gives us an opportunity to think about the emotional content of what we are saying before speaking. It also points to the notion that, if we use Freud’s ideas of the conscious and unconscious mind, maybe the body is unconscious mind, the seat of feeling.

Recommend reading Meg-John Barker’s zine. If you want more detail, try The International Focusing Institute‘s Learning Focusing, Six Steps or read the original book, Focusing by Eugene T. Gendlin.

I particularly like this quote from the Six Steps:

“One danger with a set of instructions is that people might use them to close off other ways. Anything human involves more than one method…

..Adopt a “split-level” approach to all instructions: On the one hand follow the instructions exactly, so that you can discover the experiences to which they point. On the other hand be sensitive to yourself and your own body. Assume that only sound expansive experiences are worth having. The moment doing it feels wrong in your body, stop following the instruction, and back up slightly. Stay there with your attention until you can sense exactly what is going wrong.

h/t DRMcIver’s Notebook.

Why People Ghost — and How to Get Over It

“If a friendship feels like too much work, maybe it is. The good ones shouldn’t feel like a chore on your to-do list, or that one side is doing all the communicating). Sometimes the best course is to let someone go, even if you were once close. Growing apart can be a friendship’s natural evolution; ditto for lovers, an even touchier discourse. But it’s the way you let go that matters…

…’Being vulnerable is the number one thing that creates intimacy between people and if you worry about being hurt all the time, you’re not able to be vulnerable and it affects the quality of connection.'”

—Adam Popescu, “Why People Ghost — and How to Get Over It.” The New York Times. January 22, 2018.

Resolution of the Mirage

“As explained by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, emotions take form as we interpret events and our physiological states. The richer the repertoire of emotional concepts we have to draw on, the more precisely we can name our feelings. This articulation shapes our experience of the world: The more precisely we can label a challenge, the more easily we can respond. Feeling ‘bad’ differs from articulating ‘righteous indignation,’ Feldman Barrett points out; the latter is more likely to propel one into action. ‘Emotional granularity’ creates more options for understanding and reacting to challenges. This ability to finely articulate emotions will likely also help us understand and relate to others.”

—Margaret E. Morris. “The New Tech of Relationships.” Nautilus. December 2018.

Interesting correlation to some of the teachings of Zen. As thoughts and emotions arise, labelling them creates distance, shifting us from the one experiencing the emotion or having a thought to an observer classifying them.

But, there seems to be a difference in goals. In creating a more sophisticated and nuanced language for emotional and intellectual experience, it gives us more control over the stories we tell about them and how we construct our identity. But, Zen is less about control and more about questioning the validity of any story.

For example, feeling “righteous indignation” is much more specific than feeling sad, but invariably, you have to identify as a good person who takes exception to a wrong observed in the world. Are there good people and bad people? Does what we think and feel, experiences we have no control over, indicate who we are? And are our ideas about what is right or wrong in the world a refection of Reality or a reflection of our thoughts and of our perception?

When you start looking closely, the difference between sad and “righteous indignation” is simply the level of detail in the mirage. Having higher resolution fictions makes for better stories, but do they make for better lives?

Emotional Regimes

“In September 2017, a screenshot of a simple conversation went viral on the Russian-speaking segment of the internet. It showed the same phrase addressed to two conversational agents: the English-speaking Google Assistant, and the Russian-speaking Alisa, developed by the popular Russian search engine Yandex. The phrase was straightforward: ‘I feel sad.’ The responses to it, however, couldn’t be more different. ‘I wish I had arms so I could give you a hug,’ said Google. ‘No one said life was about having fun,’ replied Alisa…

…’There is no such thing as a neutral accent or a neutral language. What we call neutral is, in fact, dominant’…

…In this way, neither Siri or Alexa, nor Google Assistant or Russian Alisa, are detached higher minds, untainted by human pettiness. Instead, they’re somewhat grotesque but still recognisable embodiments of certain emotional regimes – rules that regulate the ways in which we conceive of and express our feelings.”

—Polina Aronson, “The Quantified Heart.” Aeon. July 12, 2018.