By Terra Vance
Characterizations of Autistic people often reflect a profile of a stoic, unfeeling, emotionless automaton. Many times, the only emotion ascribed to autistics, especially by the lay writers who populate the dustbin of Amazon Kindle’s self-published section, is explosive anger.
This is an accusation which has often been leveled against me, usually much to my confusion. One notable example was a social media post I was tagged into about infant circumcision. The journal article in the post was absolute quack science. It was emotionally manipulative, purposefully misleading, and rife with untruths and ethical violations.
So, instead of responding to the topic, I talked about the lack of veracity and the void of research ethics from the authors of the journal article. If a debate were happening, my friends deserved to have accurate, factual information to make such an important decision.
Immediately, everyone in the discussion assumed I had coldly taken a position in favor of routine infant circumcision. It was intense. I was accused of intellectualizing to preserve a personal preference (I hadn’t stated or even considered a personal preference), of not having a conscience, of “supporting genital mutilation,” and other atrocious attributes and thoughts.
The more I attempted to reason, the worse the situation became and the more convinced people were about my terrible personality and empty heart. Explaining was regarded as manipulation, being combative, and again… having no feelings. I lost friends over that conversation. I didn’t realize I was speaking a different language. I didn’t realize that my emotional experience was different from theirs. None of us did.
This was one of many similar instances in my life. I have historically walked away from such situations feeling devastated, angry, confused, and frankly, like everyone else was delusional. They felt the same way about me.
My “massive ego” is almost always a part of the charges in these discussions, parallel to the narrative that I am emotionless. What most bothered me was that no one was understanding how deeply I did feel.
It’s only been recently that I’ve reached an understanding about what is really happening in these situations. I haven’t had the right language to define and label my emotions, because my emotions are different and are experienced differently from other people’s.
An Epiphany Courtesy of RBG
Another reason I’ve been accused of being emotionless is my lack of tears during films. Other times, I’ve been accused of emotional instability due to my intense reactions during documentaries, news segments, and even advertisements others have been able to easily move beyond.
I can’t handle television, and must digest my news with a curated and metered approach. If I’m in a restaurant, at someone’s home, or even in the waiting room of a doctor’s office and the news is playing on the television, I can’t understand how others can see a bloodied white sheet covering a casualty of war after a bombing, or an advertisement for a non-profit featuring a scarred and mangled animal that has been the victim of abuse, and can simply continue eating or carry on with their casual conversation unfazed. I don’t understand how they can laugh at a joke seconds later.
But, so many times, my focus on something is coming from a different emotional angle, and it doesn’t read to neurotypical people that my response is deeply felt and from a place of passionate emotional depth.
Then, there was clarity. While watching the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG, I had an epiphany. She said, “Justice and mercy. [ . . . ] They’re very grand emotions.”
And it hit me, that to me, those are two of my deepest-felt emotions. Justice, equality, fairness, mercy, longsuffering, work, passion, knowledge, and above all else, Truth. Those are my primary emotions.
I didn’t have the language before to be able to explain how profoundly these emotions affected me, conceiving them more as ideas than feelings. At least, that’s what I was told they were.
In the pursuit of those emotions, other feelings are secondary, superficial, misleading, and trite. Sadness, grief, jealousy, fear, joy, shame, sympathy… those are emotions which serve only me; but truth and work, passion and justice, longsuffering and equality… those are emotions which serve the greater good. Those emotions are the mobilization of love.
Practical Application & Conflict
As long as the characterization of what autism means is pathologized and wildly misunderstood, the majority of autistics will not find their way to a diagnosis. Characterizing us as being without empathy is not only categorically untrue, but it also guarantees that we aren’t going to find our way to diagnosis and self-knowledge. It’s dehumanizing and unethical. There’s no way we can see ourselves as not having empathy because we feel a profusion of it.
I have a close friend, a neurodivergent woman I trust more than family, and we have only recently met. We don’t observe neurotypical boundaries. She, too, is a writer and a prominent figure in the Neurodiversity Movement. She will show me something she has been working on, and my immediate response will be to correct the language which might not be as accurate or as thoughtful as it could be. I do this before telling her how proud I am for the work she’s doing, before I tell her it’s well-written, and before I affirm for her that she is a good person doing a good thing. She does the same for me.
The reason I skip the validation or praise is because if someone complimented me on work I was doing, then I would feel they were implying that I was laboring in the interest of self-promotion or validation-seeking.
These aren’t spoken values, but something we feel innately. This is how I labor with other autistics. We correct each other. We offer what expertise and insight we can to sharpen the other’s work, to add volume and clarity to the other’s love song.
My new friend and I have already joked that we won’t be sending each other birthday cards or holiday gifts. We don’t ever talk about clothes, or the weather, or even ask each other, “How was your day?” To us, these details are things we will offer up if it’s relevant.
If the other doesn’t address something adequately enough, we tell them directly, “I still want to talk about that thing you didn’t respond to with enough focus.” We do sometimes talk about family, health, and our personal emotions, those secondary feelings most people experience as primary emotions.
These emotional differences do cause profound conflict with our neurotypical peers. When we follow the, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” maxim, it fails us with our non-autistic loved ones. They feel that we are invalidating, selfish, thoughtless, and socially tone deaf. We feel that way about them, too; however, being the vast minority, we are the ones who are pathologized.
Are We in the Wrong?
Reason would be another “very grand emotion” for me, so I would like to invite readers to “feel” through my lens as I reason through this question. Is it wrong for autistics to feel the way we do and interact the way we do? Do we need social skills training to learn to listen to people’s personal emotions and respond to those instead of the “very grand emotions” which take precedence for us?
If so, do others not need social skills training to respond to us in ways that feel unnatural for them? Are we tone deaf for not responding with, “That must be so scary/difficult/painful for you,” as opposed to, “How can I help?,” or “Here is how to fix this problem”?
Because we do have our own intuited, innate empathy. We do have a social “code” that is written in our neurology, and we do respond in a way that gels with and validates other autistics. We do form deep, impenetrable connections with each other, and these connections are not chores to maintain.
We tend to not interact outside of those things which involve the “very grand emotions,” but we pick back up immediately when we need each other, be it a month later or in three years. Sometimes, our interactions are based on personal emotions, but that’s in the spirit of another grand emotion: solidarity.
Solidarity is why when you tell an autistic something, we share with you our closest relative experience. We aren’t one-upping or implying we know how you feel… because we truly can’t. It would go against what we can know is empirical truth to claim to understand your emotions through your perspective and in light of your experiences and history. It would be disrespectful to you, a platitude or a lie.
We are saying, “This is how I share your path.” There is a question implied, too. “Have I come close to your experience?” To neurotypicals, this reads as egotistical in the same way that neurotypicals, estimating our feelings in response reads as egotistical to us.
We want to hear if something was fair or Just, if our secondary emotions are in-line with the “very grand emotions.” Or, at least we want you to troubleshoot with us and help us explore the angles beyond our limited perspectives.
To know about these differences, though, is empowering. It’s why knowledge is valuable as a “very grand emotion.”
A neurotypical person is not wired to be rewarded by our brand of interaction and emotional solidarity. Our method of relatedness doesn’t translate our heart accurately with neurotypicals. Our direct, blunt, and sometimes-brutal honesty is offensive to neurotypicals; and in turn, their roundabout, indirect, suggestive language reads as confusing, manipulative, and patronizing to us.
Our neurotypical therapists don’t even have the language to understand us because they’ve not learned how we experience emotions differently. That’s okay, because we don’t have the language yet, either. This failure to be understood is infinitely isolating, especially when it is perceived that we are unfeeling.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always been a hero to me. In watching the documentary with my husband, the only film I’ve watched in the last two years, he and I felt a lot of those “very grand emotions” in solidarity. The relationship between Ruth and her husband Marty was very similar to our own marriage.
Marty had to remind Ruth to sleep, eat, and do whatever else that wasn’t work. Professionally, his career took the back seat to her work, because her work contributed more to the greater good.
He did the brunt of the domestic load and the cooking at home, and he moved so that she could advance her career, not for any monetary reason, but for justice and mercy. He was also the primary source of humor and nurture in the house. He was laid back where she was rigid. This is all familiar to me and my husband, and we find this tale to be profoundly romantic.
There were so many times during that film that I brimmed with “very grand emotions” and my eyes welled with tears. My husband, who is also autistic, was on the same page with me the whole time, squeezing my hand in solidarity at just those right moments to say, “That’s you right there,” or “That’s how I feel about you.”
To me, this was deeply romantic and validating. He was loving me with our primary emotions by loving my work and being proud of what most partners would see as neglectful.
I felt extreme gratitude to him for that validation. We use our strengths to supplement each other. As a team, we can accomplish more for the greater good by dividing the labor. Our accomplishments belong to neither of us, because we don’t believe in ownership. We don’t really congratulate each other, because that would be an invalidation of the purpose.
We didn’t remember our anniversary this year. Or last year. We forgot together, even though it’s on a holiday. We have grander emotional connections, and that is okay. It works for us, but neither of us would be great partners for a neurotypical spouse.
I realized, too, that the emotion which has always moved me most profoundly, that brings me to tears every time, is dissent. To see RBG, her tiny form and her enormous heart, utter the words, “I Dissent,” moved me to sobbing. It was righteous indignation and solidarity. Pride. Movement. All “very grand emotions.”
To this day, I can’t look at the image of the man standing before the tanks at Tiananmen Square without crying and experiencing full-body chills. I’m crying now, as I type this. The courage and selflessness it took to be one small person against a literal army, against what had to feel like the weight of the universe, is the most inspiring gesture fathomable.
I cry with inspiration and reverence, too, every time I think of the Dandi Salt March led by Gandhi or the Bloody Sunday Selma-to-Montgomery March held in the US during the Civil Rights Movement. Dissent is the mightiest, boldest, bravest of “very grand emotions.”
There were so many instances during the film that comments were made about Ruth as a synesthetic consumer of classical music and opera, as a hater of small talk, and as singularly-focused workaholic that one would wonder what the producers were trying to communicate.
I am by no means suggesting or implying anything about RBG’s neurotype. I definitely am not comparing my or my husband’s accomplishments to her’s and Marty’s. Most autistic people’s movements are smaller in scale, and some never are realized because of antagonism, self-defeat, lack of motivation, lack of understanding, and lack of privilege.
But, I am sure that, if RBG didn’t have the celebrity she has, a therapist would decry that her work habits are unhealthy and that she needs to find a balance between her job, family, and self-care. Her path to get where she is would be pathologized. Her role as a wife and mother might be considered as lacking in nurture or being absent, though I doubt her husband would ever have felt that way about her.
I mention her not to conjecture about her neurology, and especially not to compare myself to her. I only wish to credit her as being the source of inspiration for giving me the language to understand, study, communicate, compare, and contrast my emotions with those of the neural majority.
A Request for Feedback
Since the epiphany, I’ve had many conversations with other autistic friends and with some neurotypicals, too. Overwhelmingly, my experience is not unique to me, and other autistics relate profoundly while neurotypicals do not. Of course, no two people’s experiences are identical, but there is enough assent among autistics to verify that this is an idea with legs. It’s worth pursuing.
A notion like this is a big one, a theory that if validated could provide much value to the world, in industrial and organizational psychology, in education, in professional settings, in therapeutic interventions, in sociology, in behavior economics, in social justice, and in understanding empathy in a way that is universal and not contingent on cultural norms.
It has potential to inform progress, to humanize and de-pathologize neurodivergent existence, to tailor treatments and diagnostic indicators for them, to help inter-neurotype couples and loved ones understand each other better and have more rewarding interactions, and to re-frame the conceptualization of neurodivergent people with more of those very grand emotions, like fairness and truth.
So, if you have access to influence research, please consider this as a topic to explore that would benefit the autistic condition and define autistic identity. Use your fundraising and efforts to explore this idea. Love us in our language with our “very grand emotions.”
I give permission to the world to take this theory, develop it, use it, improve it, research it, publish it, respond to it, and mobilize it for the greater good. I don’t believe in ownership.
And I ask that, if you have the time, you share with me your thoughts and your feelings, be they personal or “very grand emotions.” It would be helpful to know if you are neurotypical or neurodivergent.
Information-sharing is a love language of autistics, as knowledge is a “very grand emotion,” indeed.
Terra Vance is the founder of Neuroclastic, a website created to showcase actually-autistic voices and autistic talent. She is also an industrial and organizational psychology consultant and founder and CEO of NeuroClastic, Inc. Her passions are in the intersections of social justice, equality, literature, truth, and science. To contact Terra via email, click here. Buy Terra a coffee here.